Utah is recording historically low numbers of influenza A and B during the coronavirus pandemic, Salt Lake County Health Department epidemiologist Melanie Spencer said.
“It’s pretty remarkable, it’s really, really low right now and unbelievable,” she said.
Currently, Salt Lake County has seen five cases of the flu. Last year, Spencer said Utah had what was considered a “low” flu year and still saw 560 hospitalizations for influenza. This year the cases have not materialized. It’s good news after warnings of a “dark winter” and fears of a possible “twindemic” with both COVID-19 and the flu both taking up hospital beds.
Here in Utah, epidemiologists, like others in the northern hemisphere, keep an eye on the southern hemisphere to get an idea about how our flu season will play out. While we were celebrating Independence Day in the United States and enjoying the sun, countries like Australia, Chile and South Africa are deep in flu season.
Spencer said the Salt Lake County Health Department watched countries like Chile and Australia closely this summer and saw their “flu was essentially nonexistent.” With 60,000 influenza tests in Australia this past winter, only 33 came back positive for influenza.
Our prediction in the summer” Spencer said, “was that we would hopefully experience the same phenomenon.
No one knows for sure why cases are so low, but the thought is that mitigation strategies for COVID-19, including masks, handwashing and social distancing are also helping us fight the flu and other respiratory diseases.
There is still no definitive answer as to why these measures have almost wiped out the flu, but not COVID-19. One answer could be in how easily COVID spreads. The CDC reports, "How easily a virus spreads from person to person can vary. The virus that causes COVID-19 appears to spread more efficiently than influenza but not as efficiently as measles, which is among the most contagious viruses known to affect people.”
The CDC has said COVID spreads through droplets, like the flu, but can also be spread through aerosol transmission.
Spencer notes that we are doing all the things we should have been doing every flu season, like staying home when we start to feel sick.
A weekly map of the US shows the entire country in the green as of Monday, Dec. 28, with low to moderate flu activity. Every other state in the nation is currently recording minimal flu cases. Utah is currently in the lowest category, along with much of the nation several days after the Christmas holiday.
Early in the season, Gov. Gary Herbert made a push for people in Utah to get the flu vaccine. He said, “With the changing of the seasons, influenza season is once again upon us. This year it is more important than any before to get your flu shot. By getting vaccinated, you are greatly reducing your risk of becoming sick and thereby saving critical hospital space for others.” You’ve probably heard his public service announcement on the radio or seen it online.
Every year, thousands of Americans die from the flu, though the numbers from the CDC are only estimates: “During the 2019-2020 influenza season, CDC estimates that influenza was associated with 38 million illnesses, 18 million medical visits, 405,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths. The influenza burden was higher in young children (0-4 years) and adults (18-49 years) compared with a recent season with the 2017-2018 season, a recent season with high severity, and provides evidence to support how severe seasonal influenza can be at any age” the CDC reported.
Pediatric deaths are tracked in the United States and so far, this season there has been one pediatric influenza death reported.
- 2020-2021, 1 death reported so far
- 2019-2020, 195 pediatric deaths reported
- 2018-2019, 144 children died from the flu
- 2017-2018, 188 deaths reported in children
To find a flu shot immunization location near you, visit: slco.org/health/immunizations