Influenza has lost its fastball and lost much of its usual sickly bite on the United States of America.
While the number of influenza cases rose nationwide after a quiet 2020-21 season, the flu failed to hit pre-pandemic levels this season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Even better, the feared double national health whammy of a twindemic (the flu and COVID-19 surging simultaneously to epidemic levels) didn’t materialize.
It appears this flu season is “easing to the finish line” Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious disease expect, told CNN.
Influenza claimed more than 22,000 lives in the U.S. during the 2019-20 cold and flu season. Deaths nose-dived even greater last year, falling to about 700 during the 2020-21 season.
“Like the rest of the country, last year we saw very little flu,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s health officer, told CNN. “That wasn’t because the flu virus disappeared. But those measures that people took to combat COVID: wearing their masks, limiting their gatherings, trying to move things outside where spread of respiratory viruses is hard and is less easy – certainly limited flu.”
This season, the CDC estimates influenza has taken fewer than 2,000 lives, less than 20 pediatric deaths, produced about 3.5 million cases and 32,000 hospitalizations nationwide. H3N2 has been on the rise, but has had nowhere near the sickly effect on the country that it normally holds from November through April.
“The cumulative hospitalization rate … is higher than the rate for the entire 2020-2021 season, but lower than the rate seen (late season) during the four seasons preceding the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC reported in late March.
Viral competition – where respiratory viruses compete for people to infect – may have also played a role in this refreshingly quiet 2021-22 U.S. cold and flu season.
Whatever factors keep the flu from keeping a sickly grip on America is great news for health professionals. But remaining vigilant in the closing days of the season is a must, stresses Dr. Angela Branche, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Rochester.
“Americans should always be encouraged to get vaccinated against influenza,” Branche told CNN. “Influenza has always been a threat to the health of vulnerable members of our communities and that remains true, even during the pandemic.”
Because even though influenza has been refreshingly quiet this season, we can never afford to sleep on the flu.