Doctors say there’s virtually no widespread influenza because of COVID-19 precautions

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- While COVID-19 continues to spread nationwide, a different kind of respiratory virus is being kept at bay this season, influenza. In the first three weeks of 2021, Wisconsin Department of Health Services has reported one influenza-associated death so far.

State health data show the entire country’s flu activity remains below the baseline, including in Wisconsin. Doctors say there’s a number of reasons why the flu isn’t spreading nearly as much this season.

“We’re not seeing widespread influenza really anywhere in the country,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at UW-Health.

Health experts say one of the main ways flu spreads in the community is through children and schools.

“A lot of children are at home, they’re not at school where the virus spreads, and a lot of people are working from home,” said Laura Cassidy, PhD, director of epidemiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“That may be putting a damper on influenza’s ability to spread in our communities,” adds Dr. Pothof.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, since the start of the 2020-2021 flu season, there’s only been one pediatric flu-related death in the entire country, compared to 195 during the 2019-2020 flu season.

Doctors say a massive campaign also encouraged people to get their flu shots this year and it resonated. Wisconsin DHS data show 41% of state residents had gotten the flu shot as of Jan. 23, which is 3% more than that time last year.

“Always hear about the fringe people who decide that they’re not going to abide by public heath guidance, but for the most part, people in the general population do want to keep themselves safe and their communities safe,” said Dr. Pothof.

Doctors say COVID-19 mitigation efforts like mask-wearing, distancing and washing hands have also played a big part in flu control.

“The flu is a respiratory virus, it’s just like COVID-19, and so a lot of the preventive measures we’re taking for COVID also work against the flu,” says Cassidy.

“Compared to COVID—influenza is not as contagious as COVID-19, and it’s certainly not as contagious as some of these new variants that we’re seeing,” Dr. Pothof adds.

According to Wisconsin DHS, out of 4,569 people tested for influenza at the end of January, only three tested positive, or 0.1%. While doctors say low flu numbers are great, it’s still important to continue being vigilant.

“That’s great news right now because the last thing that we need, especially in areas in the country that are completely overrun with COVID-19 right now, would be for influenza to start spiking,” said Dr. Pothof.

I think we still need to take it seriously, because we’re just really at the point where it would start escalating,” adds Cassidy.

The CDC says from Oct. 1 until Jan. 23, the rate of flu-associated hospitalizations remain at 0.5 per 100,000.

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