JVG_210216_FLU

Certified medical assistant Jen Sampson draws flu vaccine into a syringe before vaccinating a patient at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville in 2017.

Precautions to combat the spread of COVID-19 are likely causing a bonus health effect: less flu.

Brenda Klahn, infection preventionist at SSM Health, said she has seen almost no influenza cases this flu season, and that is consistent with what other health officials have said across the state.

It is difficult to say exactly what has caused the nearly nonexistent flu season, Klahn said, but precautions such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing work in preventing the spread of influenza as well as they do for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 and influenza are both upper-respiratory diseases that spread similarly, but COVID-19 is more contagious and more deadly than flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far during the 2020-21 flu season, which lasts from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, there has been 742 cases of influenza-like illnesses reported in Rock County, according to data provided by the Rock County Public Health Department.

Those cases include people who visit a doctor with flu-like symptoms and are considered probable, suspected or confirmed cases of influenza, according to the data.

That is an 85% decrease in cases from the 2019-20 flu season, when 4,887 influenza-like illnesses were reported, according to the data.

The following number of total influenza-like illnesses were reported each season:

  • 2017-18: 4,696.
  • 2018-19: 3,255.
  • 2019-20: 4,887.
  • 2020-21: 742 as of Feb. 15.

The county has seen no people hospitalized with influenza this season, according to health department data.

“None so far, but with COVID there has been very little testing for influenza, and COVID precautions are effective against flu, as well,” Nick Zupan, county epidemiologist, said in an email to The Gazette.

The following number of influenza hospitalizations have been seen each year:

  • 2015-16: 78.
  • 2016-17: 207.
  • 2017-18: 247.
  • 2018-19: 137.
  • 2019-20: 145.
  • 2020-21: None as of Feb. 15.

There have been 14,194 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rock County since the pandemic reached the county in March. Of those, 4%, or about 568, have been hospitalized, according to county data.

The health department does not receive data on the total number of positive flu tests each year, Zupan said.

SSM Health has seen more people get flu shots this season than in recent years, Klahn said, which might also contribute to low flu numbers.

Klahn is hopeful flu cases will remain low but said the traditional flu season is not over yet.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Klahn said. “Many times our flu season is highest in February and March.”

There are lessons the community can take from the COVID-19 pandemic that could contribute to positive health outcomes in the future, Klahn said.

Frequent hand washing, keeping distance from people in public, disinfecting surfaces and staying home when sick are good practices that help prevent the spread of flu and other diseases, including common colds, Klahn said.

Health officials nationwide warned this summer about the potential for a “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19 that would have been catastrophic to the health care system.

That never happened, Klahn said, but continued safety precautions must remain to prevent it from still happening this spring.

Increasing numbers of COVID-19 vaccinations will help stop the spread of COVID-19, but in the meantime, vaccinated people have to continue with precautions such as wearing masks and distancing because it is unknown whether vaccinated people can carry the disease and spread it to others, Klahn said.

This includes employers or organizations that have many or most of their workers vaccinated. Safety protocols should remain intact for the time being, Klahn said.

The CDC will guide a majority of local decision-making on when safety precautions can loosen, Klahn said.

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