Should we still be worried about flu this year?
With the ever-present concern about COVID-19, it’s easy to forget that we’re still in peak flu season. But odds are that you don’t know anyone who’s had the flu this year.
Cape Cod Healthcare reported only one confirmed flu test in December and zero in January. Compare that to the winter before, when there were 55 positive flu tests in December and 188 in January.
National figures are similarly striking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 65,000 cases of the flu over the last 14 weeks of 2019 – and 1,016 cases at the end of 2020.
“We've been focusing on testing for COVID and not necessarily the flu, but that is still a dramatic drop,” said Mary Slater, director of Infection Prevention for Cape Cod Healthcare.
“Normally, if somebody came in with flu-like symptoms, the first thing that we would do is test them for flu. But because of COVID superseding everything in everybody's focus, we were just testing for COVID and not necessarily for flu. Only recently did we start doing more testing for flu – and during the time, we've had no positive cases other than that one in December.”
The precautions people are taking for the novel coronavirus – wearing masks, washing your hands, social distancing and just generally staying at home – also can protect us from the flu virus.
“That's a possible explanation for why we're not seeing flu,” said Slater. “Those things are exactly what you need to do to prevent the flu from spreading.”
It makes sense for people to continue to take those precautions to avoid the flu and the coronavirus, she said, “especially with more coronavirus variants, which are proving to be more contagious, showing up.”
While COVID-19 deaths locally and around the world have been highest among vulnerable populations, Slater said that no one should assume they are safe.
“We can't tell from looking at somebody and looking at their medical history, who is going to get seriously ill and who won’t. It’s really unpredictable. I think everybody has to be cautious about it.”
While access to coronavirus vaccines is still in the early phases, anyone can get a flu shot.
“Most of the time, flu season starts in November or December, and we have an uptick in January and then maybe another uptick in February,” she said. “But because of COVID, we don't know exactly what we'll see as far as the flu goes this year.
“We still want to prevent the flu from happening because people can die from the flu too.”
Flu season can last into April or May, so it’s not too late to get a flu shot, she said.
“We never know what's going to happen in any given flu season until we're done with it.”