Flu numbers far below normal during pandemic

Steep decline in positive tests during current flu season
Flu vaccine
Posted at 6:18 AM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 07:34:57-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Doctors feared what they called a "twindemic" in 2020 and into 2021 - trying to contain the possibility that two viruses would circulate throughout the United States during flu season, which runs from October to October, according to the CDC.

"We were worried last summer and last fall going into this, not knowing what the winter would hold for us and so that was why physicians were really trying to make sure that people were getting vaccinated doing everything that we could to prepare for flu season," said Dr. Jennifer Schuster, a pediatric infectious disease physician with Children's Mercy in Kansas City. "Because we did not want flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 circulating at the same time, we know our hospitals have been stretched incredibly thin with COVID-19 patients and so then to add flu on top of it, which in a normal year will stretch our hospitals during the winter, having both of those happen at the same time would have been really really scary."

Those fears have not played out.

Starting with Children's Mercy has reported zero flu cases this season, compared to 7,323 flu cases last season and 3,402 flu cases the flu season before that.

The Jackson County Health Department has reported 30 flu cases this season, compared to the 2019-2020 season when the department had 9,126 flu cases.

"Flu season is like tax season every year, you know it's coming and it comes reliably about the same time every year. And so, even with COVID-19, we were prepared to see influenza this year and we really haven’t, so both at Children's Mercy and also in the Kansas City community, and really around the United States, there's been very little influenza reported," Schuster said.

Doctors are thrilled with the unexpected outcome.

"Internationally there's just very little flu. Flu every year will come up from the southern hemisphere into the United States and that begins our flu season, and there hasn't been any influenza to come up into the United States so we haven't seen it," Schuster said. "It has been a pleasant surprise, we were very surprised. And it's been a good one that we really have not seen influenza this year."

The same trend is playing out across Missouri.

According to the state's weekly influenza reports, there have been 1,347 lab-positive flu tests so far this season. That's compared to more than 55,000 positive flu tests at this time last season.

The work of school districts to keep students and staff safe has played a significant role in driving down flu numbers, too.

"Influenza spreads in schools, we've known for a while that children very easily spread influenza, and we see that in our schools every year, and we have quite a number of schools that in the Kansas City metro that are in person, but our schools are doing a phenomenal job of implementing mitigation strategies, we've seen very little in-person transmission of COVID-19 in our schools because of all those mitigation measures, and those are also going to keep influenza from spreading as well," Schuster said.

She also said what a "phenomenal job that the children have done with being able to quickly learn how to implement this" as it relates to practicing mask-wearing, distancing, and hand hygiene every day.

The CDC reports more than 193 million flu vaccines have been distributed to date this season, which Dr. Schuster cites as a key factor in preventing the flu every year.

"We know that influenza vaccines are highly effective at preventing influenza, they're actually the best measure that we have at preventing influenza," she said.