If you’re going to feel absolutely down-and-out, horribly lousy this season, chances are you can’t blame the flu or a common cold. The coronavirus has done us a rare favor by kicking them, for the most part, to the curb.
Let’s be clear that the coronavirus itself hasn’t done that. But people’s response to COVID-19 has proved that keeping distances, washing hands and wearing a mask do wonders for containing the spread of infectious diseases. Elated by this piece of hope, some health professionals say they’ll be masking up during future cold and flu seasons.
“My gosh, we have found the cure for the common cold – it’s a mask,” mused Lisa Zwerdlinger, MD, public health officer for Lake County Public Health Agency in a recent weekly COVID-19 update. She said the flu has been almost nonexistent this year in her practice, echoing statistics across the state and US.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment logged just 23 influenza-associated hospitalizations this season through Feb.13, compared to 3,546 reported for the 2019-2020 flu season.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control is reporting an unprecedented drop in flu cases. There were 22,000 influenza-related deaths in the 2019-2020 season, and in a snapshot between Sept. 29 and Dec. 28 of 2019 there were 65,000 reported flu cases.
In the same timeframe this season there were just 1,016 reported nationwide. Most likely there would have been more reported cases if people had been seeing doctors more regularly, but that hesitancy doesn’t account for the enormous drop in flu activity.
And in a mid-nation snapshot, the Omaha World Herald recently delved into influenza statistics for Nebraska, reporting 161 flu cases between Sept. 27, 2019 and Jan. 30, 2021. In the previous flu season, Nebraska saw 19,000 cases.
“I’ve seen three cases of influenza, and by now I should have seen several hundred,” Zwerdlinger said.
She noted that with the flu being less infectious than COVID-19, masking is an excellent front-line tool in its prevention.
“I’m a believer,” she said. “From October to April, every year for the rest of my life, I’m wearing a mask. It keeps me healthy, it keeps my patients healthy, it keeps my workforce healthy.”
In Chaffee County, there hasn’t been a flu season, to speak of. “We were relieved to learn that we have had no confirmed flu cases in the county this past flu season and can only hope that this is true in the upcoming fall and winter,” said Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH).
But she said influenza remains on the public health radar, especially moving forward. “CCPH is already starting to plan for the 2021-2022 flu season, which feels early, but not for us. There have been reports of various respiratory illnesses and other communicable diseases, but the incidence of these significantly declined over the past season.”
Fearing the possibility of a “twindemic” this season – a double whammy of COVID-19 and influenza overwhelming healthcare systems – health officials sent out an early plea for people to get their flu shots. In Colorado, 2,124,469 influenza vaccine doses were dispensed by Feb. 15 this season. That’s a 13.5 percent increase over last season, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The call for help resulted in an increased number of influenza vaccinations nationwide; manufacturers projected they would provide as many as 194-198 million doses for 2020-2021, compared to the 175 million dose record for the 2019-2020 flu season.
Carlstrom said the pandemic has taught much about how to prevent illness. “I think we have learned a lot about how to keep people healthy, and that includes facial protection, staying home when sick, and washing our hands routinely,” she said. “While we have all had to make sacrifices during the pandemic, we have also seen what best practices can do to protect people’s health from viruses and other illnesses.”
Public health professionals are saying that COVID-19 has removed considerable stigma about staying home while sick instead of powering through a runny nose and hacking cough at the office. It has also placed more acceptance of working from home as prevention when colds and flu are making the rounds.
“We will probably see a societal shift in how we conduct business, services, and social activities, which isn’t a bad thing,” Carlstrom said. “I know that nobody wants to live through another pandemic, so the way we live might be more mindful of sustaining some of these simple actions to protect ourselves and others.”
Featured image: Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash.