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For Now, Americans Keeping Flu at Bay

In the most dangerous cold and flu season of our lifetimes, the American public is, for now, keeping influenza at bay.

In hopeful news amid the dark winter of COVID-19’s second deadly wave through America, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report influenza cases are surprisingly and refreshingly low. Through November, only 1.5% of outpatient doctor visits in the U.S. have been for influenza-like illnesses, well below the national baseline of 2.6%. Flu numbers have continued to remain stagnant nationwide in December. H1N1 is the nation’s prevalent strain, but it has lost much of its sickly bite in the early days of the 2020-21 flu season due in large part to nationwide COVID safeguard measures.

According to FluSurv-Net, a mere 61 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated cases were reported from October 1 through December 5.

“By this time in December last year, we had diagnosed over 100 flu cases in our laboratory. This year we have had none,” Dr. Marie-Louisse Landry, a Yale Medicine infectious disease expect and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology, told Healthline. 

Sadly, on the flip side, COVID-19 cases continue to rage nation-wide with the country averaging 15,000 deaths per week and quickly approaching 350,000 total deaths. The promising news: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval and the quick of distribution of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine in mid-December to essential front-line healthcare workers, nursing home residents and staff, and the most at-risk population groups give hope the country may get a grip on the virus by summer 2021.

The CDC attributes the lower flu numbers to more Americans getting the flu shot (188 million doses of the vaccine were distributed through November 30, a sharp uptick from the 168 doses that were distributed at the same point of the season in 2018). In addition, most Americans are adhering to smart COVID-19 prevention methods: Social distancing, wearing masks in public and avoiding large holiday gatherings, along with practicing proper hand hygiene

“Flu season 2020/21 remains lower than usual for this time of the year in all major regions of the United States,” Rochester Regional Health reported in early December.

That is refreshing news for a weary country that was bracing for a devastating double wave of influenza and COVID-19 deaths at the start of the flu season last fall.

“We are not seeing many cases this year,” Shanthi Kappagoda, a board-certified infectious disease physician and clinical associate professor with Stanford Health Care, told Verywell. “It is quite possible that social distancing, mask-wearing and reducing the number of large gatherings have contributed to a lighter flu season.”

The CDC does note that people avoiding health care due to the COVID-19 pandemic could be skewing diagnosed and reported cases of influenza down. And still, as Healthline’s Julia Ries notes, “even though vaccination rates are strong, the flu is out there and could surge at any moment.”

Sadly, on the flip side, COVID-19 cases continue to rage nation-wide. The country is currently averaging 15,000 deaths per week. The U.S. COVID death total is quickly approaching 350,000. 

The disclaimer to these promising low influenza numbers: We are still in the first quarter of the 2020-21 U.S. cold and flu season, which runs through May.

“Even though it’s smoldering out there, (the flu) could take off at any moment,” Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Disease, told Healthline. 

And this is no time to let our guard down.

“There’s still time for the flu to explode,” Ries cautions.

But for now, this is one health fight America is winning.