Flu Infections at Record Low Amid Covid-19 Prevention Push

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U.S. influenza infections are at a record low, mostly because of the use of masks, social distancing and other efforts to slow a national surge in Covid-19 cases.

There were just 56 people diagnosed with the flu out of almost 40,000 tests conducted at public health and clinical laboratories across the U.S. in the week ended Dec. 5, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Four states reported low levels of flu for the week, with minimal virus circulating everywhere else, the agency said. But the agency warned it may not be possible to get an accurate accounting because the number of people going to the doctor for flu-like symptoms, which would logically include some infected with coronavirus, is low.

As a result, the data should be interpreted with “extreme caution,” the CDC warned.

“It’s at a historical low, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way,” said Lynnette Brammer, head of the CDC’s domestic influenza surveillance team.

Most of the southern hemisphere, where the flu tends to hit first, had no flu season this year, she said, though some places like Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh saw rates start to increase after they eased social distancing and other policies meant to disrupt coronavirus transmission.

“We do know that when people let up on those measures, flu can come back,” Brammer said.

Testing Centers

It’s not clear why the agency’s system for measuring outpatient visits isn’t working well. It could be because patients are being directed to go directly to the testing centers that have cropped up around the country rather than to the doctor of the hospital, Brammer said,

It’s also possible that coronavirus could be crowding out other viruses, or that the high levels of vaccination against the seasonal flu could be offering more than the normal levels of protection.

The U.S. appears poised to cross 300,000 Covid-19 deaths in the next week, a sign of the unprecedented gravity of the pandemic as states prepare for their first coronavirus vaccinations.

By early Friday, at least 292,382 people had died after being infected with Covid-19 in the U.S. The numbers have been rising at a record 2,272-a-day average in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Many viruses that normally circulate this time of year, such as respiratory syncytial virus, are also at low levels, potentially depressing the number of people visiting the doctor and suggesting that practices like mask wearing and hand washing are helping control a range of infections, she said.

Child’s Death

The news wasn’t all good, however. The agency reported a child died of influenza last week, the first of the season.

“It’s a really sad reminder that influenza can be a severe illness,” Brammer said. “Even though it’s really low, it is still out there at some level. That serves as a reminder that on top of all these other protective things you are doing, a flu vaccine is still really important.”

The flu shot will also protect people from potentially having to deal with a coronavirus infection and the flu at the same time, she said. “That’s the last thing we want,” she said. “The health system is stressed enough right now.”

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