Coronavirus mitigation measures stopping influenza in its tracks

Michigan

UNDATED (WOOD) — Michigan is seeing an extremely low number of influenza cases this season, a side effect of the social distancing and mask wearing people are doing to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ latest report shows just sporadic or no activity across the state and no outbreaks in congregate settings.

During the same period last flu season, activity was considered slightly elevated to high depending on which region of the state you were in and it was increasing just about everywhere. There were about 30 outbreaks.

Across the state, visits to doctor’s offices with influenza-like symptoms are down about 88% this flu season from about the same time last season.

Between Oct. 1, 2020, and Jan. 23, 2021, only six people in Michigan have been hospitalized for the flu. All the patients were adults. During about the same period last year, that number was 365, including 74 children. The difference works out a decline of about 98%.

The pattern is the same across the country. Maps from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention show 49 out of 50 states with low or minimal flu activity. Oklahoma is the lone outlier with moderate activity.

Around the same time last year, before the pandemic swept across the U.S., flu was considered widespread around the country. The flu is believed to have killed between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans between October 2019 and April 2020.

Spectrum Health Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Liam Sullivan said they’ve yet to treat a flu patient so far this season.

“We have not detected any cases of influenza,” Sullivan said.

For Sullivan, these numbers are incredible, especially as we head into what is typically considered peak flu season.

Sullivan said this trend is not due to lack of testing as most COVID-19 tests administered at Spectrum Health also swab for influenza.

“We’re still looking for flu, we’re just not finding it,” Sullivan said. “We’re doing more flu tests right now than we were last year at this time.”

Medical experts like Sullivan say this unusually slow flu season can be seen as a perk of mask wearing and social distancing, precautions taken to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

Sullivan said these measures go a long way in preventing the spread of the flu as the respiratory illness is far less contagious than COVID-19.

“You put a mask over someone with influenza, you pretty much eliminate their shedding of influenza around them,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said it’s these precautionary measures that are proving to save lives, preventing the thousands of influenza deaths seen each year.

“In the United States, anywhere from 30 (thousand) … to 50,000 people lose their lives in a normal influenza season, those people are not going to lose their lives this year from influenza,” Sullivan said.

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