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Bioscience-Medicine

How COVID-19 Safety Precautions May Have Helped You Avoid The Flu

 Following COVID safety precautions like wearing a mask in public may have helped transmission of the flu virus at the same time.
Following COVID safety precautions like wearing a mask in public may have helped transmission of the flu virus at the same time.

Because the pandemic overlapped flu season, some feared the virus and COVID-19 would spread heavily at the same time. It didn’t happen.

Dr. Carolee Estelle, interim chief of infection prevention at Parkland Health & Hospital System, talked about this with KERA’s Sam Baker.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Why There Were So Few Flu Cases:

It's strongly believed that that is primarily related to all of the public health interventions that have been put in place for COVID: the masking, the (social) distancing, people working from home, and just being very cognizant of general hygiene.

Why That Didn’t Happen In Past Flu Seasons

There are prevention things facilities are now doing for COVID that we have wanted to do for flu seasons, but because of the amount of resources needed, we typically aren't able to do that in a robust fashion.

With COVID, people can still kind of question how effective these measures are. We have models and mathematical projections that can tell us how bad it would have been if we didn't put these measures in place of it, but because it wasn't lived, it's sometimes harder to grasp conceptually.

With flu, we have this every season, we know what those rates look like. We know what those hospitalizations and numbers look like, and we see how dramatically these interventions decreased that.

Flu Hospitalizations In North Texas

At Parkland, our percent positivity for influenza right now is 0.4%. This time, last year, year to date would have been 24%.

We've had only 67 positive flu tests for this whole season. That's compared to more than 3,700 positive flu tests year to date last season. And we're testing somewhat more this season, comparatively speaking. So that's not just born out of not thinking about it and not looking for it and not testing for it, which is one other thing you would be concerned about in terms of hospitalizations and hospital impact.

For Parkland, this season, we've only had 16 people in the hospital who had a flu diagnosis, compared to the season prior, where we had 480. So, the impact in the hospital itself has also been very improved, reduced.

Could It Have Been Just A Mild Flu Season?

The thing arguing against that is the CDC has been tracking flu with actively collected data since 2005. Since then, the mildest flu season was the 2011 season. And this season is a quarter of that. I think that really makes an argument for interventions having a huge role.

Will Flu Make A Strong Comeback When COVID Restrictions Are Lifted?

We watch out for possible flu seasons from about September to May, and we've had negligible flu, thus far. So one of the things that we're looking at, now that our mask mandate has lifted and people are traveling, is that we may actually see the flu start circulating. We're not out of the flu season fully. It would be a very late flu season to start now, but it's possible that it could start circulating at this point. So even this season, we could potentially see that occurring if we have a full sort of relaxation.

Concerns About Creating Next Season’s Flu Vaccine

Typically by this point in a flu season, scientists have accumulated enough specimens to compare for what we like to call the vaccine mismatch. We haven't even reached enough specimens to be able to comment on how effective this season’s vaccine is. So there's one thing there.

That same issue of not having enough specimens to look at can also potentially play a role in creating next year’s vaccines and not having enough to accurately predict what strains are going to circulate for the subsequent season. So that could have an impact on the ability to create a highly effective flu vaccine for next season.

Would Keeping Safety Restrictions In Place Permanently Make A Difference In The Spread Of Infectious Disease?

Oh, yeah. I think that in future flu seasons, this will give us really good data or leverage to implement more of these strategies each flu season.

I think a lot of people are probably going to make a personal choice each flu season to wear masks when they're in public and doing things for their own sort of protection and decreasing their likelihood of getting it.

Also, I think certainly for our facilities and potentially for other people's workplaces, I think it may be reasonable to say, “Hey, it's flu season. If more people want to work from home, that would be really great.”

And I know for facilities like Parkland, we would really like to continue the front door screenings, the symptom screening, and the temperature screening for visitors and patients and staff during flu season to help make sure we don't have any spread inside the building either.

RESOURCES:

Why the Flu Season Basically Disappeared This Year

A Slow Flu Season Could Spell Trouble for Next Flu Season

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at sbaker@kera.org. You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

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