Influenza has historically been dangerous for children. Children under 5, particularly those age 2 and younger, have a high risk of developing complications of the flu, some of which can be life-threatening and even result in death. But, while the U.S. hit a milestone of 195 pediatric flu deaths during the 2019-20 season, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently aware of only one child in the U.S. who has died of the flu during the 2020-2021 season.
The number of flu deaths in adults decreased sharply this season as well. Between Oct. 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020, the CDC estimates that at least 24,000 but as many as 62,000 adults died from influenza-related complications. Although the 2020-2021 season is not over, there have only been an estimated 453 flu deaths in the U.S. as of late February.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, and his colleagues have monitored the flu over the past three decades. During that time, they have never seen illness levels come close to current lows.
“The CDC is being modest,” Schaffner told “Today.” “Influenza is at record-setting lows. The flu virus is not circulating in our population the way it normally does.”
Cause Of Decreased Flu Deaths
The flu season is not over, as the virus will continue circulating through March and into April. However, experts believe the low rate of flu deaths this season is primarily because of existing immunity and precautions being taken for the coronavirus pandemic. Like the coronavirus, influenza spreads through respiratory droplets. Since many people are wearing masks, social distancing and practicing improved hand hygiene, the influenza virus is not getting the chance to spread as easily as it usually does.
“I think that that obliteration of the flu epidemic, which was seen globally, tells us that the way that influenza is transmitted from one person to another might really have been impacted by the use of masks, more than anything else,” Flor Munoz, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ infectious-diseases committee, told the Washington Post.
People are also staying home, especially if they don’t feel well or have been in contact with someone who has symptoms.
“Fewer people are out and about, and people are even hopefully less likely to be out if they are symptomatic,” Dr. Nisa Maruthur, a primary care physician and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told “Today.” “In normal years, people who are symptomatic do not typically feel the same need to stay home.”
Kids often spread the flu virus at school, with their friends and at home. But with many children attending school virtually and avoiding crowded gatherings, this type of transmission has slowed as well.
“Children are not getting infected and not bringing the virus home to their elders,” Schaffner told “Today.”
Finally, there has been a notable increase in vaccinations. A national survey in December 2020 found that more U.S. adults reported receiving or planning to receive an influenza vaccination during the 2020-2021 flu season than ever before. The CDC reports that more than 193 million flu vaccines have been distributed this season, and more than 78 million Americans received a flu shot as of January 2021.
It’s not that healthcare providers aren’t testing for the flu. The CDC reports that approximately 800,000 lab samples have been tested for the flu since early fall and only about 0.1%-0.2% have been positive. During most flu seasons, positivity rates top out at 20%-30%.
Fewer Flu Deaths Going Forward?
Experts warn that when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the influenza virus will be back at full force next season. However, continuing safe practices in the future could significantly affect illness and deaths caused by the flu.
“I think this has clearly shown that masking, distancing, hand-washing — all these things clearly work,” Aaron Milstone, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, told People. “So I think the question will be, how much appetite do people have for all that to prevent influenza, instead of just covid.”
Many Americans express their plans to continue wearing masks and practice other safe behaviors beyond the pandemic after staying healthy during the past year.
“I think we do need a new culture of masks, at least any time not feeling well, and I think masks are in and handshakes out for the indefinite future,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director and the president of global health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, told CNBC.