How COVID-19 Ended Flu Season Before It Started

“Although the U.S. continues to struggle with COVID-19, it has apparently beaten the flu into submission. Since the end of September, the combined total of positive flu cases identified by both public health and clinical labs is fewer than 1,500. There are high schools with more people in them. The phenomenon is not only in the United States — worldwide, rates of influenza are nearly off-the-charts low. When you line multiple years up on the same graph, it can even look like there are no cases of flu this year. That’s how out of step we are with the norm.”

“This massive shift, experts told me, is likely tied to the precautions we’ve taken to avoid catching COVID-19: mask-wearing, social distancing, obsessive cleaning of surfaces (which doesn’t do much to prevent COVID-19 but probably is preventing flu) and even keeping kids out of the classroom. “The major vector for influenza is children,” said David Topham, co-director of the New York Influenza Center of Excellence in Rochester. If they don’t get to breathe on each other like normal, they also can’t transmit as much flu. And that trick still works, even if flu isn’t the reason we’re keeping them distanced.
Influenza hasn’t been our target with all these interventions, but we’ve certainly given it a good pummelling. And that’s because flu just isn’t as transmissible as COVID-19.”

“Our strategies are working on COVID-19, as well. Just not as dramatically, because it was more likely to spread to more people to begin with.”

“Significantly reduced international travel has probably played a role in that, Brammer said. Usually, our flu season follows that of the Southern Hemisphere. But if there wasn’t much of one there, and there wasn’t much travel to transport the virus — the flu has no way to travel.”

“scientists don’t know for certain what’s happening because the trouble with a really, really minuscule flu season is that it doesn’t leave you enough cases to make solid statistical inferences. We don’t know, for example, much about what happens when you get both the flu and COVID-19, because there haven’t been enough cases of it to do good research. We don’t really know how this bottleneck is affecting which strains of flu are circulating for the same reason. We don’t even know, for certain, that it is the masks and distancing that are squashing the flu because there are so few flu cases left to look at.”

This might be your most important flu shot ever

“This fall and winter, health experts expect two types of deadly viruses to be circulating widely in the US. But they don’t yet know what the extent of the damage will be when the two collide.

In the absence of a coherent federal response, the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the country, with several states still battling active outbreaks. Experts estimate it could continue to hospitalize thousands and kill hundreds of people a day into September — likely with more spikes in the coming months.

We’re also now staring down the annual flu season, which typically starts in October and burdens the health care system even in normal years. The 2018–2019 flu season in the US, for example, resulted in about half a million hospitalizations and more than 34,000 deaths. The previous season, deaths were double that. And communities of color, which have already been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, historically have also been more likely to have chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk of influenza-related complications.”

“One problem is that because influenza and Covid-19 are both respiratory viruses, severe cases will be treated on much of the same limited medical equipment, like ventilators. And because they can have overlapping symptoms, figuring out whether someone has the flu or Covid-19 — or neither — will be tricky but also important.

Fortunately, we already have a safe vaccine for the flu, and nearly 200 million doses are slated to be available in the coming months.”

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that everyone 6 months and older (with very rare exceptions, like a life-threatening egg allergy) should get a flu shot. And this year, it is more crucial than ever to get one, experts say, to reduce the spread of the virus and keep the health care system from being overtaxed with continued surges of Covid-19.”