Reports of “historically low” flu activity in the U.S. (and around the world) aren’t a coincidence.

By Maggie Seaver
January 08, 2021
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Amid all your mask-wearing, travel-canceling, quarantining, and social distancing over the last 10 months, you may have wondered at some point: Have all these precautions not only helped me avoid spreading and catching COVID-19, but also avoid picking up a nasty flu this flu season? If so, your instincts may be spot on. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm that many regions, including the U.S., have seen, and continue to see, significantly low influenza activity during the coronavirus pandemic

"The percentage of U.S. respiratory specimens submitted for influenza testing that tested positive decreased from [above] 20 percent to 2.3 precent, and has remained at historically low interseasonal levels (0.2 percent versus 1 to 2 percent)," the CDC announced in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in September 2020. And as of its latest Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report update (for the week ending January 2, 2021): "Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year."

The CDC cites the "mitigation measures to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2"—in addition to people getting their annual flu shot—as helping to minimize flu cases during the 2020-21 flu season (the time of year when the number of influenza infections rises, typically lasting from October to May). In other words, all the traveling/gathering we're not doing, and the hand-washing and face-covering we are doing have likely influenced the declines in influenza virus circulation.

"I do think that COVID-19 precautions, including masks, improved hygiene, and social distancing, could have a positive impact on the flu season this year," says Carmen Teague, MD, the specialty medical director of internal medicine at Atrium Health. "Influenza and COVID-19 are both viruses spread by respiratory droplets. Any efforts we make to decrease the spread of such droplets should help decrease the spread of both viruses."

This may not come as a huge shock, since it's only logical that these "interventions aimed against SARS-CoV-2 transmission" would simultaneously slow the transmission of other respiratory viruses, like the flu or a common cold, which also spread primarily by droplet transmission (and which already spread less easily than the coronavirus anyway). And medical experts have likely predicted it from the start, corroborated by Dr. Teague's comments. But it's fascinating to see real data proving these suspicions correct—at least in part. The public health agency does also attribute the notably low reported incidents of flu infections to the fact that, due to the coronavirus, fewer people sought routine check-ups or treatment for typical flu-like symptoms, so it's possible some flu cases went unaccounted for.

The report notes, too, that the CDC will continue to keep a close eye on influenza circulation to see if low flu activity sticks around once communities have eventually loosened their coronavirus mitigation efforts. Or if the 2021-2022 season will be reduced or delayed due to sustained COVID precautions through the year.

Finally, the CDC also mentions, "in the future, some of these community mitigation measures could be implemented during influenza epidemics to reduce transmission, particularly in populations at highest risk for developing severe disease or complications." Does this mean you'll have to wear a mask and avoid human contact every single flu season? Probably (hopefully!) not. However, it offers health officials a valuable piece of information when comes to finding widespread interventions for protecting vulnerable people against the flu.

What does this mean for you right now? In a way, nothing—keep doing what you're doing for the sake of slowing the already-rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. Only now, while you're at it, you know you're also helping to keep flu cases at bay.