As COVID-19 continues to impact people in Blaine County and across the United States, health officials are witnessing a positive development amid the pandemic: Cases of the flu are down significantly this season.
Evidence of the trend has developed nationally, on a state level and, now, on a local level. Numbers released by the St. Luke’s Health System late last week indicate that flu cases confirmed at its emergency rooms—including the ER at St. Luke’s Wood River—are infrequent. The broader St. Luke’s system—which serves much of southern and central Idaho—from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31 recorded 22 cases in 1,949 people tested for the flu at its emergency rooms. At the St. Luke’s Wood River ER, zero positive tests were recorded in 88 tests conducted in the same four-month period.
Dr. Terry Ahern, medical director of the emergency department at St. Luke’s Wood River, said the numbers are significantly lower than what doctors and health officials have seen in previous flu seasons, before the COVID-19 pandemic. He would normally see at least one—and sometimes several—cases of the flu in a single shift in the ER during flu season, he said.
“It’s been a silver lining in this COVID winter,” Ahern said.
And, Ahern said, the decline is not just for the flu, which typically infects most people in the United States from late fall through the winter. The Wood River ER has also seen a major drop in cases of other respiratory illnesses, he said, including RSV, a virus that typically infects children. Wood River doctors discovered a small number of flu cases last summer, he said, which were mainly linked to people who had traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, where the annual cycle of flu transmission begins.
“Apart from COVID, we’re just not seeing much,” he said.
The evidence from St. Luke’s correlates with statewide data reported by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and national data reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In week six of the calendar year—earlier this month—the portion of outpatient visits in Idaho that were for the flu was 0.7%, state Health and Welfare reported. At the same point in the 2018-19 flu season, it was just over 5%, more than seven times higher. The CDC’s latest data on flu in the nation—for the week ending Feb. 13—prompted the agency to rate flu activity as “minimal” in every state except Texas, which had insufficient data to be rated.
“Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year,” the CDC website stated Tuesday.
As for why cases of flu and other respiratory illnesses have declined, Ahern and other health-care professionals have stated that the primary factor is people following mitigation measures for COVID-19. By wearing masks, washing their hands, keeping distant from others and maintaining smaller social circles, people have largely avoided spreading the flu, Ahern said.
“The things we’re doing as a community have meant that the flu hasn’t gotten a foothold yet,” he said.
Both the flu virus and COVID-19 are spread mainly by droplets made airborne when people cough, sneeze or talk and are inhaled by others, the CDC states. COVID-19 is generally considered to be more contagious than the flu.
Another, likely-less-influential factor could be success of this year’s flu vaccine, Ahern said. Evidence suggests many people got the flu vaccine earlier this season, in the early fall, he said, though nationwide less than half of the population typically gets the inoculation.
Infection with the influenza virus and the 2019 novel coronavirus bring on many similar symptoms in patients. They include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache and occasionally vomiting and diarrhea, the CDC states. COVID-19 “seems to cause more serious illnesses in some people,” the CDC states, and might cause additional symptoms, such as loss of taste or smell. Both viruses can cause death.
Because the symptoms of the viruses are so similar and because the rates of flu and other respiratory illnesses have dropped so significantly, people who exhibit those symptoms should conclude that there is a “high” likelihood they have COVID-19, Ahern said. People who believe they might have COVID-19 are advised to take a variety of actions, Ahern noted, including quarantining at home, getting tested and seeking advice from their primary-care doctor.
Dr. Deb Robertson, an emergency medical physician at St. Luke’s Wood River, agreed.
“This [evidence] is a testament to how well masks and other measures work,” she said. “We’ve seen so few respiratory illnesses other than COVID lately. Bottom line—if you have any respiratory symptoms, there’s a high chance it’s COVID. Stay home.”
Meanwhile, Ahern, Robertson and other health-care providers continue to fight COVID-19. Ahern said St. Luke’s Wood River had two COVID patients in the hospital on Tuesday. The state recorded 332 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday. The United States surpassed 500,000 COVID-related deaths this week.
While health-care providers and data trackers have recorded drops in the number of cases and percentage of tests registering as positive in Blaine County in recent weeks, the virus remains a threat, Ahern said.
“It’s present in the community,” he said. “It’s still being spread.”
In some cases at the Wood River ER, Ahern said, people being treated for ailments not linked to a respiratory virus end up testing positive for COVID-19, not realizing they had it.
“That keeps us on our toes, for sure,” he said.
And, because the coronavirus can be spread by people who are asymptomatic, it’s important for people to continue to follow the recommended mitigation measures, he said.