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Mild Flu Season Amid Pandemic

Virginia Department of Health

The mild 2020-21 flu season offered a bit of relief amid the hundreds of thousands of deaths from the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it will be the same during the next flu season.

Flu season basically overlaps with the winter months, although cold weather has nothing to do with the spread of influenza. Last winter there were 19 weeks where the flu was widespread in Virginia. This winter there were zero.

There hasn’t been a single outbreak in Virginia this flu season, according to Virginia Department of Health data. An outbreak is when there is proven spread in a single setting.

Since the flu and the coronavirus spread in similar ways, the preventative measures against COVID made this flu season one of the mildest on record. This was particularly good news for the elderly and children.

“We see the most flu deaths in the very young and the elderly. So that's a really good thing for young children because they're not as affected by COVID as they are by the flu,” said Karen Carle, a nurse with the Richmond City Health District.

Medical experts were nervous that a flu outbreak on top of COVID would’ve been especially deadly.

“It's been a flu season bust, which is actually a good thing. We didn't want to have a double pandemic or too many respiratory viruses circulating at the same time,” said Dr Gonzolo Bearman, the chief of infectious diseases with VCU Health.

Bearman said that in addition to the use of non-pharmacological interventions - masks, distance, and hygiene - there could be another reason as well. “There may be a component in which the COVID-19 virus, SARS COV-2, to be more correct, became the predominant respiratory virus infecting populations, which minimized the presence of influenza.”

Medical experts encouraged flu vaccinations, and people took that advice. Nationwide about 175 million people got flu vaccines by the end of last season, according to the CDC. Compare that to this season, when as many people were vaccinated by November.

Bearman said we should keep up with widespread vaccination for the flu.

“That yearly influenza vaccination will need to go on moving forward,” he said. “Do not forget about influenza. It has been a killer since time immemorial and it's certainly coming.

Bearman says that for next flu season, we’ll have to keep an eye for the southern hemisphere. Their flu season happens during our summer.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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