As the 2020-21 flu season comes to an end, good news and lessons for the future come from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This year’s flu season was far less serious than any previous year, and far less deadly as well.
Last year—2019-2020—the CDC estimated that estimated 38 million influenza-type illnesses in the United States, with 18 million medical visits, 405,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths.
This year, the CDC preliminary data through March 6 reported only 1,561 cases of influenza for the 2020-21 flu season.
As of January 16, only 292 flu deaths were recorded for the 2020-21 flu season. During the previous 10 years, flu deaths in the United States ranged from a low of 12,000 in 2011-12 to a high of 61,000 in 2017-18. The average was somewhere around 36,000. Child deaths averaged nearly 200 in past years, with 196 child deaths from flu in the 2019-20 season. So far this season, only one child has died of influenza.
What accounts for the low infection and death rates from influenza? Probably a number of factors, including:
- social distancing,
- hand washing,
- distance learning,
- surface cleaning (since the flu virus lives on surfaces).
The big take-away from the lower flu numbers is that we can greatly reduce the incidence of influenza infections and deaths. We are not going to have schools and businesses closed next year. (At least, I hope not.) But we CAN do social distancing, hand washing, surface cleaning, and even mask wearing in public places. These simple precautions, together with the flu vaccine, can greatly reduce the damage and death done by influenza every year.
“Since people aren’t getting the flu this year, that means more people will be susceptible to catching it next year. Kids are especially vulnerable to catching the flu, and next year there will be more children than ever who have never gotten the flu in their lives. This will also make them more likely to spread it. Some adults might also be more vulnerable to get sick with the flu next year. Immunological memory of the virus fades over time, and by the time the next flu season begins, it will have been a year since many adults last received a flu shot.”
Stephen Kissler, a Harvard epidemiologist, told Vox that we can beat back the flu and that COVID “has shown us how to do it.” The measures taken to defeat COVID have cut influenza to one or two percent of its previous infection rate. We can learn from this year and continue to stay home while sick, keep children home, wear masks, and practice good hygiene.
COVID is both much more contagious and much more deadly than influenza, but with vaccinations and the lessons learned so far, we can beat back COVID, too.