Influenza Cases at an All-Time Low
(Central and Southern Illinois) Early February 2020 we held our breath, waiting to see how far and quickly COVID would spread in the United States. This was not the only health care concern spreading across Illinois last winter. Before COVID arrived, we were in the midst of an unusually severe flu season. By the first week of February, HSHS Medical Group had recorded nearly 700 positive flu cases across central and southern Illinois. By the end of April we had reached more than 2,000 cases.
This winter, however, is drastically different. Flu cases are at an all-time low, with less than 50 positive cases in HSHS Medical Group clinics since the beginning of September.
“Our efforts to help curb the spread of COVID are also helping to curb the spread of influenza,” says Valerie Thompson, MD, primary care physician at HSHS Medical Group Medicare Clinic in Springfield, Illinois. It seems that masking, hand washing, social distancing and decreased gatherings have all contributed to an extremely mild flu season.
If these precautions have worked so well to lower our flu cases, why haven’t we always done this in the United States? “Many countries around the world, including multiple countries in Asia and Europe, have been masking for other infections including influenza for a number of years,” says Dr. Thompson. “In those countries, any time a person is sick, it’s a societal norm to mask to prevent the spread. Some even wear masks on public transits even if they aren’t sick.”
“Now that we have numbers in front of us and can show that we’ve made a huge dent in the spread of influenza, it should be something the United States tries to recommend in the future,” says Dr. Thompson. Many of Dr. Thompson’s patients at the Medicare clinic are considered at risk for complications due to influenza. Even after COVID is no longer a major concern, Dr. Thompson will start recommending her higher risk patients mask, wash hands frequently and take other precautions during the winter months.
“There could be some explanation as we were stressing the flu vaccine even more than usual because our hospitals were so overburdened with COVID patients,” says Dr. Thompson. The CDC has not yet released information on the effectiveness of this season’s flu vaccine, and since the cases are so low, it may not be easy to evaluate how well the vaccine actually worked.
There is still potential for flu cases to increase this winter as the COVID vaccine is distributed and people stop following current precautions. Dr. Thompson says she still recommends the flu vaccine this year. This is especially important to protect those at high risk for flu complications, such as the elderly.
HSHS Medical Group primary care offices have flu vaccines available for their patients. Dr. Thompson recommends that anyone with the COVID vaccine scheduled should wait two weeks between their COVID vaccination and flu vaccination. Patients should prioritize the COVID vaccination and get that first if it is available to them.
What about other winter illnesses?
Influenza isn’t the only illness curtailed by COVID precautions. Pediatricians are also seeing a decrease in strep pharyngitis (strep throat). Brock Phillips, MD, pediatrician with HSHS Medical Group, says strep likely spreads due to close contact, as the bacteria is spread by respiratory secretions from someone who is infected. Infections usually occur in school age children, peaking around age seven.
Last winter, HSHS Medical Group had nearly 700 cases of strep throat by early February. This winter, strep cases are nearly half that.
“I do believe good hygiene such as frequent hand washing, avoid touching nose/eyes, wearing masks, and social distancing precautions implemented against COVID has decreased the incidence of strep pharyngitis as well,” says Dr. Phillips.
As children return to school and other activities, Dr. Phillips still recommends precautions to keep families healthy: “Strep is still out there in the community, so continuing proper hand hygiene and staying home when sick is important to limit the spread.”