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Flu Rates Plummet in the Midst of COVID-19 Pandemic

Mom checking the temperature of young child with the flu.

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Key Takeaways

  • Flu rates are significantly lower this year compared to previous years.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says flu shot rates are up as well.
  • COVID-19 safety precautions like wearing masks and social distancing have helped curb flu cases this year.

If the fear of a potential flu and COVID-19 "twindemic" has been on your mind since the start of flu season, you may be able to breathe a little easier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza rates are shockingly low this season, much to the relief of hospitals already overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

Lower Flu Rates

Lynette Brammer, MPH, leader of the CDC's Domestic Influenza Surveillance team, indicated that both, flu testing and vaccinations are up and infection are down.

"Our clinical labs are testing a lot. During the week of New Year's, they tested 21,000 specimens and got 28 positives," Brammer tells Verywell. "Our public health labs tested another 10,000 and got 16 positives. It's incredibly unusual how little flu there is."

These low infection rates are especially unusual given the highly contagious nature of influenza. Michael Jackson, PhD, MPH, senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, tells Verywell via email that both influenza and COVID-19 spread in the same way, via respiratory droplets.

"Influenza has a shorter “latent period” than SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19]," Jackson says. "The latent period is the time from when someone gets infected until they become contagious, so influenza tends to spread faster than SARS-CoV-2. However, SARS-CoV-2 is more contagious than influenza. So a person infected with SARS-CoV-2 is expected to spread the virus to more people than a person infected with influenza."

What This Means For You

Although flu rates are extraordinarily low, the flu is still out there. With hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, it's more important than ever to stay safe by washing your hands, wearing a mask, socially distancing, and getting the flu vaccine, if you are able to. You can get your flu shot at local pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.

More Flu Shots

Flu season typically starts in October and lasts until May. This year, the CDC and other public health officials emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated more than ever.

In an attempt to manage hospitalizations in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC purchased an additional 2 million doses of the pediatric flu vaccine and 9.3 million doses of adult flu vaccine. Brammer says that there is a record amount of vaccines available, with 192.3 million doses distributed as of the first week of January. In 2020, 171.7 million doses were distributed by the same week.

Brammer says that flu typically peaks in February, so we're not out of the woods yet. There is still time to get vaccinated if you're able to. The flu vaccine typically takes around two weeks to take full effect. For children taking the vaccine for the first time, a two-stage shot is necessary. Brammer says the sooner you vaccinate, the better.

COVID-19 Safety Precautions Help Too

While the CDC is encouraged by increased vaccination rates, other factors are also driving low flu rates according to Brammer and Jackson.

"I think it's multiple factors," Brammer says. "All of the mitigation measures that have been put in place to help with the COVID-19 pandemic, are working well against influenza—wearing a mask and keeping your distance and washing your hands works for flu as well."

Jackson agrees. "The low rates of flu that we’ve seen so far are mostly due to social distancing used to prevent SARS-CoV-2."

An additional focus on hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing will help curb any illness spread by respiratory droplets. Despite historically low numbers, though, Brammer says that if you have not been vaccinated yet, there is still time and it is still worth it.

"All these mitigation measures are just layers," Brammer says. "And this [flu shot] is just another layer of protection. While something may slip through on one layer, hopefully, the next layer catches it and vaccines are one of those layers."

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza vaccine doses distributed, United States. Last updated January 6, 2021.