I would never say that there was any such thing as a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, but it is true that basically nobody died from the flu this year because of masking and social distancing.
What medical officials worried would be a “twindemic” at the end of last year — the concurrence of influenza and COVID-19 sicknesses overwhelming Houston’s hospitals — turned out surprisingly well.
At Memorial Hermann, just three patients tested positive for influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season, compared to 983 patients during the 2019-2020 flu season. Doctors test for both flu and COVID-19 as a precaution.
The same public health measures that prevent SARS-CoV-2 from spreading — masks, social distancing and regular hand-washing — kept influenza strains from sickening people.
“When we were looking internally, we just weren’t seeing flu,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief executive physician at Memorial Hermann.
Flu infections are down nationwide, with a hospitalization rate of 0.7 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the last flu season, the rate was nearly 100 times higher — 66.1 per 100,000 patients. Pediatric deaths also decreased, from 189 last year to one this year.
Researchers wondered whether being infected with the coronavirus would wipe out the chances of getting the flu, and say it may be a factor that contributed equally to declining flu rates.
“Part of it is because we had a worse virus that was spreading faster,” McCarthy said.
Knowing to wear masks and get a flu vaccine could be a huge step toward eradicating deadly flu seasons. But will people continue to practice those public health measures? Doctors don’t know.
“We’re recognizing that not only can we protect our friends and loved ones from COVID, but we can also do it from influenza with precautions for medically vulnerable folks,” McCarthy said.
I’ve gotten a flu shot every year for as long as I can remember, and as far as I know I’ve never gotten the flu. I will certainly continue to get those vaccines as before, and I’d strongly consider wearing a mask during the flu season going forward when doing things like grocery shopping. Hard to see any reason why not to at this point.