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One possible upside to the COVID-19 pandemic: Less flu in Minnesota

Some years, Minnesota hospitals are nearly filled up with flu patients. With the system already near capacity with COVID-19 patients, a severe flu season could have been disastrous.

In addition to continuing to wear masks, socially distance and wash hands, doctors are encouraging people to get their flu shots and continue to follow public health recommendations.
In addition to continuing to wear masks, socially distance and wash hands, doctors are encouraging people to get their flu shots and continue to follow public health recommendations.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Living in a global pandemic has not been fun. But on the bright side, if you’re careful, this just might be the year you don’t get the flu.

It’s still quite early in what’s typically flu season, but so far, numbers collected by health agencies offer encouraging news: they suggest transmission of the flu virus in Minnesota, as elsewhere, is minimal, especially compared to some years past.

Going into flu season, the threat of a combination COVID-19 plus flu “twindemic” was a major fear for public health officials: many years, the state’s hospitals are filled to the brim, a deadly illness in its own right, killing an average of 207 Minnesotans each year in recent years. With the extra strain on hospitals created by COVID-19, a major flu season could be disastrous.

So far, though, there are no signs of that. And it’s possible that COVID-19, and all the extra precautions Minnesotans are taking in response to the pandemic, could be part of the reason.

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Flu transmission minimal

Since late September, when the Minnesota Department of Health started tracking flu numbers for the season, 16 Minnesotans have been hospitalized due to flu, compared to several times that at this point in some recent years.

Minnesota Department of Health
With many schools using distance learning, there have been few outbreaks in schools this year. Long-term care facilities are also seeing low rates of flu. The rate of flu tests coming back positive in recent weeks for the whole state has been 0.1 percent.

A Centers for Disease Control map of flu activity puts Minnesota at “minimal” transmission. While there is slightly more in some states, and a moderate amount of flu in Oklahoma, it’s scant overall compared to years past.

Centers for Disease Control
Minnesota is not alone in seeing lower flu rates than in normal years. For reasons that aren’t fully understood, the flu virus tends to transmit more readily in the cold months than it does over the summer. Because of that, the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite of the northern hemisphere, is used as an early, if not entirely reliable barometer of what flu activity could look like (the flu virus is good at mutating so it can change before flu season in the northern hemisphere).

This year, the southern hemisphere had a much milder season than in years past.

“They saw their lowest level of influenza in just about a generation,” said Dr. Mark Sannes, an infectious disease physician at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital.

Sannes said Minnesota could be on pace to seeing a similar trend, but cautioned that it’s early — the worst of the flu season often falls in February.

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Similar spread

It makes sense that there would be less flu transmission, given the precautions people around the globe are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 and the flu are both respiratory viruses that chiefly spread via respiratory droplets.

“[Droplets] happen when people cough, sneeze or even just talk, so those droplets are in the air and then they can get into peoples mouths or noses,” said Dr. James Smith, a third-year U of M Medical School Family Medicine resident at the M Physicians Broadway Family Medicine Clinic.

For both viruses, that’s especially likely to happen when people are within a 6-foot distance of one another for more than a fleeting moment. This is why social distancing — staying six or more feet away from people in social settings, and wearing masks that limit the amount respiratory droplets expelled, are effective for reducing both.

It’s possible the number of people flocking to get flu shots is helping, too. This fall, pharmacists have reported significantly increased demand for flu vaccines.

Smith said it’s too early to tell how effective this year’s flu vaccine will be: it’s typically between 40 percent and 60 percent.

Another possible factor contributing to fewer flu cases so far here and elsewhere this year is that people, wary of the doctor’s office amid COVID-19, aren’t coming in with flu symptoms to get tested, meaning they wouldn’t show up in the numbers.

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Staying healthy

Some of the symptoms of COVID-19 are much like flu, including fever, cough, headache, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose. The viruses are also similar in that people who are infected with either can transmit them to others before they even have symptoms.

But in general, COVID-19 symptoms tend to come on more slowly, whereas coming down with the flu is often compared to being suddenly hit by a train.

This year, people with pretty much any symptoms of illness are being encouraged to get tested for COVID-19 because the virus is, in many cases, mild or even asymptomatic.

In addition to continuing to wear masks, socially distance and wash hands, doctors are encouraging people to get their flu shots and continue to follow public health recommendations, because this year, a lot is riding on health providers having the capacity to take care of everyone who’s sick.

“Really our concern right now is just being able to care for patients,” Smith said. “Hospitals often fill up with normal flu during the winter season, both children and adult hospitals. With extra COVID-19 numbers we have a big concern that we won’t have the space or availability.”

And when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to them, Sannes encouraged Minnesotans to take it.

“When you’re offered the opportunity to get one of those safe COVID-19 vaccines, you should take the opportunity,” he said.