LIMA — The seasonal flu has all but disappeared as public health measures intended to curb the spread of coronavirus have been even more effective at slowing the spread of influenza.
Ohio hospitals have reported 78 flu hospitalizations during the first 19 weeks of the 2020-2021 flu season, accounting for only a fraction of the 4,400 influenza-associated hospitalizations reported during the same period last year and slightly more than half the number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions reported on Friday alone.
“The experience we’ve had with the flu versus the experience we’ve had with COVID-19 has shown the dichotomy of the infectivity of these two viruses,” said Dr. Matthew Owens, chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center.
The public health measures taken to mitigate the spread of coronavirus — widespread masking, reducing indoor crowding, better hand hygiene — were more effective in reducing flu transmission than in slowing coronavirus, Owens said.
“Even as we took those measures,” Owens said, “even with everything we’ve done, we still saw quite a large surge (of COVID-19) in our region. I think it’s a reflection to the public of the message that we’ve been saying, which is that this is a more infectious and a more impactful virus than the seasonal flu that we’re used to.”
Erika Gillet, a physician’s assistant at Indian Lake Medical Center, put it this way: “If you’re in a room with two people and one has COVID and one has flu, you’re less likely to get the flu than COVID-19.”
Gillet has only tested a dozen or so patients for influenza this year. None thus far have come back positive, she said.
Most patients with flu-like symptoms that Gillet has seen are more worried about COVID-19 than the seasonal flu, which is less contagious and less lethal than the new coronavirus.
But both Gillet and Owens say there’s no evidence that fewer people getting tested for the seasonal flu means that COVID-19 cases have been misattributed.
“Those patients (who) are presenting with flu-like illness, they’re often getting tested for both flu and COVID, not just COVID alone,” Owens said.
More people taking the flu vaccine, which Owens said is typically 40% to 60% effective any given year depending on the strain of influenza most prevalent in the community, has likely helped keep the flu at bay.
The mild flu season is a welcome reprieve for hospitals and health care workers, who have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 since last spring and who were once worried that they could be fighting dual pandemics if influenza was not contained.
And the effectiveness of masking and social distancing, which have been used to control previous infectious disease epidemics, point to a possible future in which the seasonal flu becomes less common if the public adopts these practices, which are common in other countries.
“It’s been an interesting observation through the chaos that COVID has provided us to see flu rates being this low,” Owens said. “So, when you’re sick stay home. When you’re not feeling well, social distance from others. And if you’re not feeling well and have to go to the doctor, perhaps wearing a mask while you’re going to the doctor to prevent transmission to other people might be a good idea.”