Though no one asked what of the flu.
And the test results Eric Freeman was seeing presented that dozens of his patients had the coronavirus, yet almost none were testing positive for influenza.
“COVID has just been the dominant viral pathogen right now, and it really has not allowed flu enough space to populate adequately,” Freeman stated in an interview Monday. “I haven’t had a rapid flu test positive in my office since before Thanksgiving.”
Public health specialists, general practitioners and pediatricians had warned for months that a wave in coronavirus cases over the winter months would be joined by a typical flu season, which eliminates tens of thousands of Americans annually. However, a funny thing happened in the midst of a global health pandemic: Flu season was completely canceled.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows only 1,893 Americans have tested positive for the influenza virus this year, between clinical laboratory results and public health labs. By this point last year, over 290,000 people had tested positive for influenza.
The CDC announced in August that 198 children had died from influenza-related causes throughout the last flu season, a record high. So far this year, only one child has died, the lowest tally since records started being kept in 2004.
“You’d never think there would be a silver lining to this [pandemic], but this is about as close to a silver lining as there has been,” stated Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College. “That’s what wearing masks and social distancing and probably reduced in-person classes [does].”
Less than 1 in 1,000 hospitalizations this year have been for influenza, one-seventh the proportion reported in the last low-severity flu season in 2011-2012.
American health officials and vaccinologists typically discover key hints regarding the upcoming flu season from viruses that start circulating in the winter months in the Southern Hemisphere, our summer months.
Though even as those officials were sounding the alarm regarding the potential for a double season of respiratory diseases, governments in Australia, Chile and South Africa were reporting lower-than-normal flu circulation. The viral curves in those three nations started to ebb far faster than in previous seasons, as new lockdowns and restrictions were put in place.
“Over the past twelve months, with the exception of some countries in West Africa and some countries in Southeastern Asia, no one’s had a flu season. And that’s in countries that shut down really strictly, it’s in countries that maybe haven’t shut down as strictly. That confounds me a little bit," said Richard Webby, director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.