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COVID Precautions Cause Flu Cases, Deaths to Plummet

Cases of and deaths from the flu are way down this year.  Experts credit the precautions people are using to avoid COVID-19.
Cases of and deaths from the flu are way down this year. Experts credit the precautions people are using to avoid COVID-19.

Cases of and deaths from flu are way down. Experts credit the precautions people are using to avoid COVID-19.

COVID-19 has ravaged the world over the past year, bringing sickness, hospitalizations or death to millions. Many Americans have complained about the inconvenience of wearing masks, frequently washing their hands and distancing from others. But these precautions have proven effective, and not only at lessening the impact of COVID. They apparently have had an amazing effect against another, very common, virus.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control epidemiologist Dr. Jonathan Knoche reports that the number of cases of flu is way down this season.

Statewide, he said, there have been 107 lab confirmed tests this flu season. Compared to last year at this time, there would be 5991 cases. “If you look at the average year - the last five-year average, - at this point on any average year we’d have over 3000 cases. So there’s a big difference, obviously, between 107 cases this year compared to an average year of about 3000 cases at this time.”

Similar case numbers are reflected locally in the Midlands, said Dr. Helmut Albrecht, medical director for infectious disease research at Prisma Health Richland hospital.

“At our lab, at Richland, where we usually have a couple dozen per week, and the height of it, having a couple hundred per week, we’ve had zero this year, confirmed. And this is now going into the third month (of the season). So this has been unprecedented, in my lifetime, at least.”

These numbers prove, said Albrecht, that the prevention techniques people use against COVID also are successful at preventing the flu.

“Influenza is a very different virus, but it’s also droplet-transmitted,” he said. “So having masks on one person is significant preventative. Having masks on two people essentially aborts influenza transmission. And then the hand hygiene and the distancing, absolutely this is very effective against influenza transmission.”

Twenty thousand to 60,000 Americans die of influenza annually, according to Albrecht. The number of children he cited who have been saved from flu deaths this year was astounding.

“We usually have around between 100 and 200” children die nationwide from flu each year. “In a severe season, up to 400, 500 children die. This entire season, that’s still ongoing, we’ve had one confirmed death. So it’s significantly less than 1 percent of what we would expect in any given year. One death, national.

“Last year we had, for instance, 196 confirmed influenza deaths in children in the U.S. This year, we have one.”

Surprisingly, according to Knoche, the number of flu vaccines administered is down this year. But the cases and deaths still have plummeted because of the power of wearing masks, washing hands and keeping distanced.

“Even though we’ve had about 10% fewer flu vaccines this year compared to last year, I think that is a takeaway, that wearing a face mask and keeping your distance works.”

Getting annual flu vaccines is important, said Albrecht, not only because it guards against the latest flu strain, but, he said, revealing another surprise, immunity can build up over the years from past shots.

“You take the new vaccine because the virus changes a little” each year, he explained. “And the antibodies wane over time. But last year’s vaccine still has some activity against these strains. So each year you get a flu vaccine, you increase your armor a little bit. Last year’s vaccine is not as good as this year’s vaccine against this year’s flu virus, but it will help some.”

Albrecht said being vaccinated and using preventive behaviors can abort a flu season, as this year proves. While saying he doubted that it will happen because people are tiring of the precautions, he added that doing the same thing for COVID also could stop that virus in its tracks. Still, he remained hopeful.

“So let’s learn from that lesson and going forward, get more people vaccinated for COVID and be done with this.”

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