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Sharp Health News

How COVID-19 has affected this year’s flu season

Jan. 8, 2021

Woman with flu and cold laying in bed watching TV
If you were to look back at last year's flu (influenza) season, two things would stand out: there is no mention of COVID-19, which is now top of mind for most people in the U.S., and flu numbers were much higher than what we are seeing this year. This flu season, we're likely to see lower numbers of infection precisely because of COVID-19 and the precautions we're taking to slow its spread.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity in the U.S. during the 2019-20 flu season began to increase in November 2019 and remained at high levels for several weeks through February 2020. It is estimated that 38 million people were sick with the flu and more than 22,000 people died from flu complications in that single season. This year, the CDC reports that seasonal flu activity remains low.

Gina Newman, MSN, RN, CIC, manager of infection prevention at the Sharp Metropolitan Medical Campus, reports that there are a few specific reasons why this flu season might be less severe, and discusses what role people can play to ensure this remains true. Here, she answers top questions about flu and how the COVID-19 pandemic and related prevention tactics affect the 2020-21 flu season. 

Are we seeing similar flu infection numbers as we have in past years?
No, we are seeing fewer lab-confirmed cases of influenza this season when compared to years past. According to the County of San Diego, influenza activity across the county remains low. For example, for the 2020-21 season, we have seen 438 total lab-confirmed cases to date, as compared to 1,506 this same time period last year. Nationally, the CDC reports low influenza-like illness activity across all 50 states.

How has COVID-19 and the related precautions affected flu numbers?
It is assumed that the decrease in transmission of seasonal influenza is likely a result of social distancing, hand hygiene and mask-wearing interventions.

Are more people being vaccinated for flu because of COVID-19?
Experts have been encouraging everyone age 6 months and older to get a flu vaccine (with rare exceptions) to protect from flu illness and help avoid overwhelming the health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The County of San Diego has recorded a higher rate of flu immunization in its registry than in any previous season. As of early January, more than 1.1 million San Diegans were vaccinated for influenza.

Is the currently available flu vaccine a good match for this season's strains?
According to the CDC, this season's flu vaccines were updated from last year's composition to better match viruses expected to circulate in the United States.

Are there precautions beyond what we're already doing to prevent COVID-19 that we should take to slow the spread of the flu?
The very same measures we implement for preventing the transmission of COVID-19 are those we should take to slow the spread of influenza. In addition, frequent cleaning and disinfection of highly touched surfaces in the home, workplace and car can reduce the spread of the influenza virus. According to the CDC, the flu virus can "live" on some surfaces for up to 48 hours.

Are treatments for mild cases of the flu the same as for mild cases of COVID-19?
Both influenza and COVID-19 are viral respiratory illnesses. Home care for mild cases is similar, including over-the-counter (OTC) fever-reducing medications, decongestants and sometimes antihistamines. Always check with your doctor before taking any OTC medication to ensure there is no danger to you taking them.

Other at-home treatments include staying hydrated, getting a lot of rest, and using vaporizers or humidifiers while following manufacturers' safety guidelines. The CDC recommends you stay at home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine. However, if you are in a high-risk group, may have been exposed to COVID-19, or are very sick or worried about your illness, contact your doctor.

When should someone with the flu seek emergency treatment?
Many cases of influenza are mild to moderate and can be managed at home. Adults should seek emergency care if they experience:
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Severe weakness
  • Muscle pain
  • Unsteadiness
  • Fever or cough that improves and then gets worse
  • A worsening of chronic medical conditions
In children, the CDC recommends looking for these same symptoms as well as bluish lips or face, ribs pulling in with each breath, dehydration, or a fever over 104° F.

Learn more about flu care in San Diego and where you can get a flu vaccine.

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