Flu Infections Are 'Unusually Low' This Year amid the COVID Pandemic

Experts say flu infections are likely low this season due to adults and kids staying home and wearing masks, as well as increased flu vaccination rates

woman blowing her nose
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Though daily COVID-19 cases are still at dangerously high levels in the U.S., flu infections are "unusually low" this season, the Centers for Disease Control said.

In their weekly flu report, the CDC noted that "flu activity is unusually low at this time," though they noted that it "may increase in the coming months." That analysis is "the CDC being modest," Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Today, with cases "at record-setting lows." As of Jan. 16, there have been 136 hospitalizations and 292 deaths. One of those deaths was in a child.

During the previous flu season, the CDC said than an estimated 38 million people contracted the flu, 400,000 were hospitalized and 22,000 died. The season was particularly rough on children, with the highest number of infections since the CDC started tracking them in 2010 and at least 434 deaths.

Schaffner said that this year, "the flu virus is not circulating in our population the way it normally does."

The lower rates of infection for the flu is likely due, in part, to the increased health precautions in place for COVID-19. With more people staying home, social distancing and wearing masks, the flu, which is far less contagious than COVID-19, is less likely to spread.

"It is possible that the mitigation measures for SARS-CoV-2 will help curb the spread of flu [and] other respiratory viruses as well, since these viruses are transmitted in similar ways," Dr. Ellen F. Foxman, an immunologist and Yale Medicine Laboratory Medicine physician, told Healthline.

Schaffner said that much of the difference can be attributed to children. Typically, school-aged kids are "the great distribution engine" for the flu because once they contract influenza it stays in their system for longer and spreads to adults.

"Children are not getting infected and not bringing the virus home to their elders," Schaffner told Today.

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Additionally, flu vaccination rates were higher this season. By the end of November, 44.5 million adults had received the flu vaccine in pharmacies, compared to 30.4 million at the same time the year before, according to the CDC.

Schaffner hopes that people will learn from this low flu season and adopt preventative health practices for the coming years.

"Wear your masks, social distance — do those sorts of things on an annual basis," he said. "I think we'll see much more of that messaging because it's now more socially acceptable and familiar to many people."

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