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A ‘dramatic drop’ in flu cases is ‘silver lining’ of COVID prevention measures

People walk the High Line park on July 16, 2020, in New York City. One of New York City's most popular attractions, the High Line reopened with social distancing policies as part of the Phase 3 coronavirus plan. Visitors must enter on Gansevoort St., walk one way, maintain six feet apart and wear their masks. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

In a pandemic that doesn’t feel like it has any silver linings, there seems to be at least one extra benefit of the prevention measures in place to limit the spread of COVID-19: a drop in flu cases.

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As a result of people being so careful about the coronavirus — the mask wearing, the hand washing, the constant cleaning, the social distancing, all of those things we put in place — the flu is not spreading as rapidly this winter as it has in past winters.

“It’s quite impressive. It’s been a dramatic drop,” Dr. Matt Hanson, medical epidemiologist with Public Health — Seattle & King County, told the KIRO Nights show. “If we look at this time last year, beginning of the year, maybe 200-300 cases in a week were being identified, and this time, this year, were 0, 1, 2 cases a week.”

Not only have the case numbers for influenza gone down significantly this year in King County, but also the number of outbreaks and the number of deaths associated with influenza, Dr. Hanson says, which is at least in part believed to be due to the prevention measures taken in regard to COVID-19.

“[In] a typical year, maybe we’ll get 50 outbreaks, often in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, and maybe 50 deaths. But thus far this year, we’ve seen no deaths, no outbreaks,” Hanson said. “And even though it’s a bit early — we often see the spike in January, February a little bit higher than, say, November, December — it’s still dramatically low compared to previous years.”

This trend is seen at the state level, too, with few to no cases of flu. At the national level, Hanson says it’s “much less than usual” based on the CDC’s tracking and surveillance.

“With those COVID measures in place, we’re seeing significantly lower numbers,” he said, at all levels. “And I’d say that’s true also internationally, where COVID prevention measures have been in place, we’re also seeing significant drops.”

As far as any long-term behavioral shifts that could help to keep cases of the flu down in future years, Hanson hopes some of the practices in place now, particularly related to personal hygiene, will stay.

“I think the increased personal prevention that we’ve taken in terms of washing our hands, using hand sanitizer, being better about our sneezes and our coughs into our elbow rather than into the air in front of us,” he said, explaining the things he hopes will stick around. “I think the things that are a little more significant in terms of the steps that we’ve taken around COVID, such as wearing masks all the time when out of your household, the social distancing — those are probably more difficult to see happening in the long term.”

“I think, for the near term, as we’re going through this pandemic, of course, all those measures, they’re important to keep in place,” he added. “But I think a lot of those efforts to just increase our personal hygiene around respiratory viruses, I think are improvements. I think the long-term mask wearing, staying apart from the people that we love, that’s going to be probably a little more challenging to maintain long, long term.”

He also hopes some of the changes that took place at long-term care facilities, which are often hit hard by the flu season, last as well.

“I would say many changes took place within those facilities, much more regulation of those facilities,” he said. “And I think the benefit has been for all respiratory viruses, and most importantly, other than COVID, was with influenza. So I think many of the changes that have been instituted in those facilities will be long lasting.”

There’s also another tool in our arsenal, Hanson says, against the flu in the vaccine. There had been concern that there may be a drop in terms of health care seeking behaviors, not as many people going to their local pharmacy or doctor to get a flu shot during the ongoing COVID pandemic, but Hanson says that’s not what happened.

“In terms of the data that we have for September and October, it actually looks pretty good,” he said. “We’ve actually vaccinated a larger percentage of the population than we had to date the previous year.”

That said, Hanson thinks it’s the prevention efforts that have contributed the “lion’s share” of the drop in flu cases this year, though people getting the vaccine certainly helps as well.

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Some other behavioral shifts, like remote working, could also be playing a role in the reduced cases. Dr. Hanson says that could be a good development in the future, especially during this time of year when there are more respiratory viruses like flu.

“And then I’ve also definitely heard from many that there’s a bit of a culture change taking place where people are listening to the advice that if you have a sniffle, if you’re not feeling all that well, you don’t just tough it out and go to work,” he said. “You actually heed the advice and say, ‘you know what, I got something brewing here. I’m actually gonna stay home, and then maybe I’m even going to call my medical provider to be looked at.'”

Aside from the flu, county health officials have also noticed lower cases of foodborne illness or other infectious disease, which makes sense as people are probably not eating out as much, not going to the movies, generally staying home more than usual.

“I would say the big difference is that we’ve seen is probably respiratory viruses, such as flu, and foodborne,” he said. “Those have decreased significantly.”

Earlier in the year, as were many health officials, Hanson says he was fearful of the dual pandemic where flu and COVID-19 infections could be happening at the same time.

“I think, as we all know, it’s been a very difficult 12 months for many people. And I think those that have been dealing with influenza for many years, of course, you always fear what’s going to come in the fall and the winter, and this whole prospect of a dual pandemic and how that could potentially overwhelm our health care system was quite worrisome,” he said. “I think the silver lining around flu cannot be overstated because it is dramatic how much it’s dropped. And I never would have expected it to be as low as it is to the point of some weeks where you get essentially no cases at all.”

“So I’d say that is the silver lining. And I think that is a benefit, an additional benefit that your listeners should know, that many of the efforts that they’re taking around COVID are having benefits to themselves and the community around flu and other respiratory viruses,” he added.

Hanson says it’s not too late to get your flu shot if you haven’t already, and tells listeners to “keep up those good prevention measures.”

“And when it’s your time to step in line and get your COVID-19 vaccine, I urge you to do so,” he added.

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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