By Alexandra Becker
Late last year, amid what will likely be the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes, infectious disease experts noticed something remarkable: seasonal influenza was almost nonexistent. Just a few months prior, many of those same individuals had sent dire warnings about the upcoming flu season, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Their biggest fear? If flu became widespread, it could cripple the already overwhelmed hospitals and health systems fighting COVID-19.
Thankfully, that worst-case scenario didn’t materialize. Instead, the very opposite happened.
“It’s a really incredible story when you think about what could have been,” said Dr. Jamie McCarthy, chief executive physician for Memorial Hermann Health System. “Instead of dealing with two very serious respiratory illnesses, we hardly saw any flu this year.”
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recorded the lowest number of flu cases since they began tracking the seasonal illness. Nationwide, experts predict the number of flu hospitalizations to tally less than 3,000 total compared to the 400,000 last season. Even more astonishing, there have been less than 500 flu-related deaths this season; last year, 22,000 Americans died from the flu.
“The magnitude of this drop is truly impressive, and it’s particularly notable in the pediatric population,” McCarthy said. “Last year, 198 children died from the flu in the U.S., and this year, the CDC has recorded just one death.”
According to McCarthy, Memorial Hermann Health System has recorded just three cases of influenza this season.
Now, experts want to understand why the flu all but disappeared—and what we can do to keep it dormant in the years to come.
“We believe that the majority of this phenomenon can be explained by the safety measures we put into place to combat COVID-19, including social distancing, improved hand hygiene, and particularly the wearing of masks,” McCarthy said. “School closures may have helped, too, since they are typically hot spots for flu germs, as well as reduced use of public transit and travel in general.”
In addition, McCarthy noted that bolstered public health efforts to distribute the flu vaccine this year also paid off.
“Because we were so worried about battling a bad flu season on top of the pandemic, there was a big push to get people their flu shot this year,” McCarthy said. “That campaign was a success, with the U.S. distributing more influenza vaccines this year than ever before. It was a significant increase from last year, and that very likely contributed to the lower rates of cases we’ve seen.”
McCarthy said he hopes future public health efforts will take into account these lessons learned.
“It points to some pretty interesting behavioral changes that I think we should contemplate as a community moving forward,” McCarthy said. “Should we wear masks when we’re in public spaces during cold and flu season? Should they be standard on airplanes? It’s certainly something to consider, and it’s unfortunate that masks have become politicized, because from a public health perspective, they are nothing but a success story.”
McCarthy added that if nothing else, the year without flu should teach us two things.
“Masks and vaccines work,” he said. “It’s a simple as that.”