Do you know anyone who had influenza this past year? Chances are you do not. Sure, plenty of people had the “stomach flu” with vomiting and diarrhea, otherwise known as gastroenteritis. Some people had colds and others had COVID-19. But cases of influenza this season have been exceptionally low.
Starting a year ago, when someone came to my clinic with symptoms of influenza, including fevers, chills, muscle aches, or respiratory symptoms, we tested for both COVID-19 and for influenza. At first, every COVID-19 test was negative while many influenza tests were positive. However, with social distancing, mask wearing, washing hands, and people staying home when they were sick, influenza cases plummeted faster than I have ever seen. And this phenomenon was not isolated to my clinic.
According to the CDC, data shows influenza virus circulation in the United States declined sharply within two weeks of the COVID-19 emergency declaration and widespread implementation of community mitigation measures, including school closures, social distancing, and mask wearing, although the exact timing varied by location.
Final totals for the current 2020-2021 season will not be available for a few months. However, we know that influenza virus activity throughout the United States has largely remained rare or sporadic for this entire influenza season, despite even more testing than previous years. For example, by early February, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., had run ten times more influenza tests this season than last season, and they were all negative.
Over the last decade, influenza claimed tens of thousands of deaths annually in the United States. The worst season was 2017-2018 when 61,000 people died, and the fewest deaths occurred in 2011-2012 when 12,000 people died. During this past year, COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people in our country. COVID-19 still managed to thrive even while influenza withered. The biggest reason is because COVID-19 is more contagious than influenza. Vaccinations and past immunity to influenza also help reduce its occurrence.
We cannot stress how important and helpful everyone’s efforts over this last year have been toward keeping the numbers of COVID-19 down as much as we could to “flatten the curve” and trying to avoid a catastrophe with everyone getting sick at once. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are getting closer. As far as influenza goes, washing our hands, staying home when sick, social distancing, and wearing masks have drastically helped minimize the spread.
Richard P. Holm, MD passed away in March 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is founder of The Prairie Doc®. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc® ® library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc® on Facebook. Andrew Ellsworth, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota.