Before the 2020-2021 flu season began, experts were warning of an influenza-and-COVID-19 "twindemic" — a viral mash-up that could wreak havoc on the United States healthcare system. The main concern was that we'd see an increase in hospitalizations from the seasonal flu, putting even more of a strain on already overtaxed hospitals. But it appears that those worries may have been unfounded. The flu has all but disappeared this year.
Between October 1, 2020 and January 30, 2021, only 155 people in the United States were hospitalized because of the flu; during that same time frame last year, 8,633 people were hospitalized. That's a 98% decrease in hospitalizations — a massive difference. Flu-related deaths are also down from last year, reports the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention. Last year, about 22,000 adults and 195 children died due to the flu; this year, there's been roughly 450 adult deaths and just one recorded pediatric death.
This isn't a coincidence. We can likely thank COVID precautions, including hand washing, social distancing, and mask wearing, for our lighter-than-usual flu season, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project. Influenza is a respiratory virus, and similar to COVID-19, it's spread via droplets that are made when people talk, sneeze, or cough. So it stands to reason that the same measure we know prevents the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading will work against the flu too. Maybe even better, since the virus that causes the flu has a shorter infectious period than COVID, Rivera points out. "The infectious period for COVID-19 includes the pre-symptomatic phase and even asymptomtic cases. That's not the case with influenza," she says.
The fact that so many schools were closed over the winter probably helped keep this flu season manageable as well, Rivera says, since schools are typically hotspots for spreading germs. In general, with many more people than usual working from home — and not taking public transport or working in congregate settings — there have been fewer chances for the illnesses spread.
That said, the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine rollout means schools are beginning to re-open and people are going back into work. The CDC says that it's possible for flu cases to increase in the coming months. Luckily, if you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, there's still time. "It’s only too late when the seasonal supply of flu vaccine is exhausted," Charles Golden, DO, vice president and executive medical director, CHOC Children’s Primary Care Network, previously told Refinery29. "We typically recommend the flu vaccine for anyone who hasn’t had one in that season, even as late as April or May. Some protection is better than none."
A less-aggressive flu season has definitely been a beacon of light during our collective experience living through a pandemic. But it's still essential to keep doing what we've been doing all year: social distancing, staying home and avoid crowded areas, washing our hands, wearing masks, and keeping our surfaces clean. Although we're at the tail end of flu season, we're not quite out of the woods yet.