Flu Activity Lower than Usual, Likely Due to Coronavirus Precautions

January 21, 2021
Rachel Lutz

Avian flu outbreaks have been detected in countries all over the world, but influenza activity in humans remains uncharacteristically low for this point in the season.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Jan. 4 influenza summary—which, as usual, should be interpreted with caution in the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic—suggests that social distancing and widespread handwashing likely played a role in reducing flu transmission this season. Compared to this point at previous seasons, flu activity is down worldwide, according to the WHO. Furthermore, in the northern hemisphere, flu levels are even lower than in the “off season” in some countries.

Similarly, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) data for the week ending Jan. 9 said that the positive tests across labs is 0.4 percent, which is much lower despite a higher-than-normal number of tests performed.

During this time period, most jurisdictions experienced low or minimal activity, the CDC said. The total number of pediatric flu deaths for the 2020-21 season is 1 so far, and 17.2 percent of all flu deaths were attributed to pneumonia, influenza, or COVID-19, (PIC) they said. The majority of these types of PIC deaths are due to COVID-19, the agency added.

The CDC still recommends getting an annual vaccination to protect against flu and its complications, though there are antiviral drugs that can be used to treat the flu.

Massachusetts students are no longer required to get a flu shot before attending school, the state Department of Public Health announced on Friday. Originally, when the requirement was made last summer, the state was the first to necessitate the vaccination for students entering kindergarten through 12th grade, plus college students. Boston’s CBS affiliate reported that 81% of kindergarten through 12th grade students received the flu vaccine last year. The state agency continues to recommend that everyone 6 months or older receive the seasonal flu vaccine, though they dropped the mandate.

Recently, HCPLive® has reported that laws that promote flu vaccination among hospital workers can reduce cases. There are 14 such states with laws that either encourage or mandate these vaccines for hospital workers.

It also possible that the flu vaccine can reduce the severity of COVID-19, according to another study reported by HCPLive®. Swiss investigators compared outcomes from COVID-19 in patients that received and not received the flu vaccine, finding that mortality was lower among all age groups in the vaccinated group. The study authors were also able to rule out diabetes or obesity, they told HCPLive, leaving vaccination as the likely reason for the differences.

Reuters reported Wednesday that a post on Facebook that alleges the WHO is hiding information about the flu vaccine has been debunked by the WHO as false. The post suggests that over 100,000 people have died as a result as the vaccination in the last 2 years – in fact, there is no WHO data that shows the flu vaccine kills. The WHO also said that severe side effects are “extremely rare.”

In other flu news:

  • A study from the Cleveland Clinic found that the natural remedy elderberry, suggested as a remedy for colds and the flu, does not make a difference compared to placebo in treating the flu. Patients in their study who received elderberry and no other flu treatments had moderate-to-severe symptoms on average 2 days longer than people receiving the placebo only.
  • This time last year, the Portland Tribune reported, Oregon had 14,000 cases of the flu. Currently, this week, they had a total of 4.
  • Saskatchewan has yet to detect a case of the flu this season as of Jan. 15, Canadian media reported. One biology professor called it “unprecedented.” A year ago, there were about 1,200 cases with 10 deaths.
  • Avian flu outbreaks have been detected worldwide, including but not limited to the following countries: