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LOCAL HEALTH OFFICIALS REPORT VIRTUALLY NO FLU CASES IN THE COVID-19 ERA
BY ELYSE CARMOSINO| March 2, 2021
It seems the North Shore has been spared a ‘twindemic’ feared by health experts ahead of this year’s flu season.
For months, as the one-year anniversary of when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the country last March drew near, doctors and infectious disease specialists everywhere braced themselves for what seemed like an inevitable, overwhelming wave of hospitalizations as the course of the pandemic intersected with the region’s flu season.
“Our ICUs have been running on a thin margin, and I was concerned that if there was an additional surge of influenza, we just wouldn’t have the resources to care for patients,” Dr. Daniel Solomon, an infectious disease doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told WBUR last month.
However, on February 10, the news outlet reported that the state had actually seen record low rates of the virus throughout the Commonwealth in recent months.
Those numbers have also held true on the North Shore, where health officials in several communities report that they’ve seen almost no cases of the flu during what would, in normal times, be the height of flu season.
Lynn Public Health Director Michele Desmarais said the city, with a population of approximately 100,000, has seen just one case of the flu since October 1.
“Everybody’s wearing a mask, everybody’s washing their hands. People are staying in their own bubble,” Desmarais said. “That’s helped tremendously.”
In Peabody, Department of Health and Human Services Director Sharon Cameron said her city of nearly 53,000 is one of many to record zero confirmed cases of influenza since January.
“I definitely think COVID restrictions have helped because they’re both respiratory viruses, and so all of the precautions that protect you against COVID would also protect you against the flu virus,” Cameron said. “The masking, the distancing, the staying home when you’re sick, all the hygiene protocols — I definitely think those play a role.”
Saugus Health Department Director John Fralick, who also reported zero cases in his community, agreed that increased health and safety precautions have likely contributed to a decline in flu diagnosis.
“COVID-19 is more contagious, and so good protection against COVID-19 serves as heavy-duty protection against the flu,” he said.
Positive trends aside, no reported instances of the flu doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t still out there, Cameron cautioned.
With so much focus on COVID-19, she said, people are far more likely to get tested for that virus when exhibiting symptoms, and if that test comes back negative, many simply assume they have the flu and take necessary precautions.
“The symptoms for the flu are very similar to the symptoms for COVID, and so people presenting with those symptoms are typically being tested for COVID and not necessarily being tested for flu,” Cameron said.
However, she emphasized that her reasoning behind low reported rates of the flu is hypothetical because her department doesn’t have access to flu testing data.
“I think it’s a reasonable assumption that COVID restrictions are having a positive impact on the burden of flu in the community, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s the cause of it. We just don’t have the data to say that,” Cameron said. “We can’t really compare how many people were tested for the flu this year versus last year. It may be that people aren’t being tested, but I can’t say that definitively.”
She added that a newfound awareness among the general public when it comes to infectious diseases will ultimately help keep both flu and COVID-19 cases down.
“There’s this heightened awareness that people have now about what type of symptoms could put other people at risk of picking up a respiratory illness,” Cameron said. “They’re being more careful about staying home when they’re symptomatic, even when they’re mildly symptomatic, and that’s very helpful in the community just to reduce the overall burden of disease of many different types of illnesses.”