Doctors encouraged by low flu numbers during COVID-19 pandemic

BOSTON — Doctors are encouraged by low numbers of flu cases thus far this season as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wear on. The data offers another glimmer of hope during the pandemic as the first vaccines arrive for the public.

“This is great news because one of the things that we were really, really nervous about as physicians is the collision of two epidemics,” said Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center “Having to be treating patients for COVID-19 at the same time we deal with trying to treat patients also with influenza.”

Dr. Assoumou said, traditionally, during peak flu season – December to February – 3% of doctors’ visits are for influenza-like illnesses. But right now, that number is less than 2%.

The latest weekly “Flu View” from the Centers for Disease Control shows minimal flu activity in New England and most of the country.

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There is also encouraging data from the southern hemisphere; Australia experienced a mild flu season, which runs from April to October.

“We’re thinking that why we’re seeing this effect is because a lot of the measures we recommend for COVID-19 – wearing a face mask, washing your hands and remaining physically distanced – also work to prevent influenza,” said Dr. Assoumou, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University’s School of Medicine.

Australia’s numbers are also likely due to an increase in flu vaccinations. Doctors here are urging people to get their flu shots.

Infectious disease trends in the southern hemisphere do not always predict what the northern hemisphere will experience. There are several variables that contribute to Australia’s flu numbers. The peak of the country’s flu season was during their COVID-19 lockdown, when exposure among groups was at an all-time low, Dr. Assoumou said.

Some countries, she added, have simply been more adherent to COVID-19 safety measures than the United States has been.

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While doctors hope the flu numbers stay the course, they encourage people not to let their guards down.

“Only time will tell to see if this [flu data] is actually going to pan out,” Dr. Assoumou said. “The measures that we have ongoing, of wearing a mask and washing your hands, that we keep encouraging people to follow are having some effect.”

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