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Record low flu cases this season due to COVID-19 precautions

Monitor staff
Published: 2/25/2021 5:00:13 PM

Thanks to masks and social distancing, New Hampshire is seeing a remarkably mild flu season. 

The same precautions that have been encouraged to stop the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus has also quelled the spread of most communicable diseases in the state, said Beth Daly, the Chief of the N.H Bureau of Infectious Disease Control. During a typical season, about 50 Granite Staters die of influenza. During the 2020-21 flu season, the state has only recorded two influenza deaths so far.

“This year has been incredibly different,” she said. “Probably not seen before for 100 years.” 

Every year, the state tracks flu spread by compiling emergency room data, test results from their public health lab, and results from healthcare providers in the community. This years’ results have been striking, even unprecedented. Of the 5,166 respiratory samples the N.H Public Health Laboratories have received this year, none have tested positive. Only one of the nearly 5,000 samples analyzed by hospital labs have detected influenza. 

Last winter, Daly said nearly half of the samples analyzed by the state lab were positive for the flu. 

“Normally, there’s literally thousands of people who get influenza. On an average week in the winter, 10% of all people dying, are dying from influenza,” Daly said.  “So, this year is very remarkable.”

In late summer, health officials, fearing a ‘twindemic’ would overwhelm an already stressed healthcare system, urgently pushed the public to get their flu shot. These fears subsided as all 50 states reported minimal levels of flu activity, even during months like December, when activity is typically high. 

It isn’t just the flu that has been stifled by COVID-19 precautions. 

Across the board, incidences of communicable diseases have dropped off. Cases of chickenpox, pneumococcus, whooping cough and even sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and chlamydia seem to be on the decline this year, though one month of data has yet to be inputted. 

She said it’s possible that some of these diseases aren’t being detected at the same frequency because people are avoiding doctors during the pandemic. That doesn’t explain the decline in infectious disease outbreaks, though. 

Typically, Daly sees an average of 75 norovirus outbreaks a year, usually in long term care facilities. This year she said she can only remember one— a testament to the efficacy of COVID-19 precautions and the contagiousness of COVID-19. 

Despite how effective mask-wearing and social distancing has been at preventing the spread of communicable diseases this year, Daly said she doesn’t anticipate these precautions will work their way into annual flu messaging. 

After several months of begging the public to mask up, she said she thinks most people will be happy to be done with these health precautions when the pandemic is finally over. She said she thinks some residents might have developed a new awareness for preventing the spread of infectious diseases. 

“To some people it's really been a new concept to think about what's on the door handle that I'm touching and yes I should probably wash my hands then before I eat food or put touch my face,” she said. “COVID is shining a spotlight on how my health is important to your health because these infections can be transmitted from person to person.” 

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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