This year we have fortunately seen far fewer flu cases than in previous years. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) FluView, a weekly influenza surveillance report, minimal flu activity is being seen across the country. That is subject to change, as we are still very much in the midst of flu season, which will last through May.
Likewise, there is a bit of encouraging news when it comes to COVID-19. Following months of all-time high cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, as of early February 2021, coronavirus cases have begun to decline in many regions across the country.
However, the potential for another surge of coronavirus and the flu is a possibility. A rise in the number of more contagious coronavirus variants, gatherings for events like the Super Bowl and Americans becoming more relaxed about taking virus prevention methods could lead to another surge. In other words, we are not out of the woods by a long shot and need to continue to follow public health guidelines.
Here’s a look at why flu cases are down, but COVID-19 cases remain high, and how we can continue to slow the spread of both respiratory illnesses.
Why are flu cases down for the year?
There are many reasons that flu cases are down this year. The primary reason we have seen fewer flu infections this year can be attributed to the precautions in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Because the flu and coronavirus are both respiratory viruses, the actions we have been taking to stop the spread of COVID-19, are also slowing the spread of the flu.
- Wearing a mask or two
- Frequent handwashing
- Social distancing
- Limiting travel
- Fewer children in classrooms
- Increase in flu shots
Wearing a mask has played a huge role in slowing the transmission of COVID-19, while simultaneously reducing transmission of the flu. New research shows that wearing two masks (layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask) provides double the protection from COVID-19.
Frequent Hand Washing
Washing our hands more frequently to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is also helping to slow the spread of the flu. Although the primary transmission route for both the flu and coronavirus is through breathing in droplets that contain either virus, both viruses can also live on surfaces, including hands. Practicing good hygiene by frequently washing our hands deserves some credit for helping to keep flu cases down.
Staying six feet away from others helps protect from both flu and coronavirus. Because both illnesses spread primarily through air droplets that are expressed when someone sneezes or coughs, keeping space between people has helped keep flu cases down this year.
Children Have Been at Home
Flu has a tremendous impact on school children in normal years. It can and does spread very quickly through schools. This year, because millions of children have not been in the classroom, their exposure to the flu has been reduced.
The flu spreads very easily and quickly amongst travelers. With fewer people traveling due to COVID-19, the transmission of the virus in airports, on airplanes, etc., has been reduced.
Increase in Flu Shots
There have been higher rates of flu vaccination this year when compared to last year. This has played a role in lower flu rates this year.
How does the coronavirus spread?
The coronavirus spreads from person to person through droplets in the air. Coronavirus is much more transmissible than the flu, and unfortunately, the newer UK and South Africa variants of coronavirus appear to be even more transmissible.
When a person with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes, you can breathe in these droplets, entering through your nose or mouth, which is why we wear masks.
Coronavirus can also live on surfaces including not only doorknobs, countertops, but also on the skin. That’s why frequent handwashing is so important, along with limiting physical contact with others.
How does the flu spread?
The flu spreads the same way the coronavirus spreads: through droplets in the air, and through contact with the virus that is on another person, or a surface. However, the R number (sometimes called R rate) for the flu is lower than COVID-19, which also contributes to lower flu infections this year. The R number describes the contagiousness of a disease.
To illustrate, consider that a single person who is infected with the flu is liable to infect 1-2 others. A single person who is infected with the coronavirus, on the other hand, is liable to infect 2-4+ people.
What You Can Do This Spring To Prevent Flu and COVID-19
We are nowhere near the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also very much still in the flu season, which lasts through the spring. So now is not the time to let down our guard. On the contrary, we must continue to adhere to public health guidelines to ensure flu infections stay low, and to continue reducing coronavirus infections.
To prevent the flu and COVID-19 this spring, be sure to:
- Get your flu shot
- Get the COVID-19 vaccine when you are eligible
- Strengthen your immune system
Get Your Flu Shot
It is not too late to get your flu shot. You can get the vaccine through April. Just be sure that you allow for 14 days between your flu shot, and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Get the COVID-19 Vaccine When You Can
When it is your turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine, schedule your vaccinations. To bring the pandemic to an end, everyone who is eligible to receive a vaccine needs to get it.
Strengthen Your Immune System
You can also strengthen your immune system this spring, which won’t necessarily prevent you from getting coronavirus or the flu, but it may help your symptoms to be milder. Think of your immune system as the army that will fight the flu or COVID-19 if you get infected. It needs to be strong.
To strengthen your immune system:
- Get plenty of sleep
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get exercise
- Take all vitamins and medicine as prescribed by your doctor
What has social distancing and quarantining taught us about healthy habits?
Social distancing and quarantining have taught Americans a great deal about the need to prioritize our health. We now know just how big of a role, a simple act of washing our hands can play in maintaining health. We also know that taking extra measures to protect those with chronic conditions is essential. So we have learned a lot about public health.
There’s still a long road ahead. There is still the possibility of a flu surge, and/or more surges in COVID-19 cases. There’s also the unfortunate possibility that next year’s flu season may be a rough one, as fewer people this year were exposed and as a result develop immunity to the flu.
The best thing we can all do, to minimize the spread of respiratory illnesses is to remain vigilant, to continue to listen to public health experts, and to protect the most vulnerable around us by getting vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19.
Meron Hirpa, MD
Meron Hirpa, MD, is an Internal Medicine Public Health Physician at the Cincinnati Health Department. Dr. Hirpa obtained her medical degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine and completed her residency training in Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. She is board-certified in Internal Medicine and holds specialized training in urban health, global health, quality improvement, and health disparities. Dr. Hirpa treats a broad spectrum of illnesses in adults. She is dedicated to patient-centered care and equity and is passionate about closing the healthcare gap among different groups. Towards that end, she led award-winning diversity and inclusion initiatives in the healthcare space. In addition to treating her patients, Dr. Hirpa conducts theoretical and clinical research and publishes in academic journals. Dr. Hirpa frequently appears in radio and television programs for healthcare commentaries.
The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
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