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Flu Cases in the U.S. Are Low—Will It Last?

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Nusha Ashjaee / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that influenza cases are low for the 2020-2021 flu season compared to last year.
  • The lower numbers might partly be the result of people avoiding seeking health care because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning fewer cases of the flu are being diagnosed and reported.
  • It's also possible that the precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are helping to prevent the spread of other viral illnesses, including the flu.
  • People should know that it is possible to get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which can cause severe illness.

At the start of November, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s Weekly U.S Influenza Surveillance Report—also known as FluView—reports that seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low.

According to the data from the last week of October, only 1.3% of outpatient doctor visits have been for influenza-like illness (ILI), which is well below the national baseline of 2.6%. At this time last year, the number was higher at 2.1%.

The United States and other nations in the Northern Hemisphere look at data from countries in the Southern Hemisphere to try to get a sense of what they might be able to expect from the coming flu season. The Southern Hemisphere's flu season lasts from May to October with a peak in August.

According to data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Southern Hemisphere reported a mild, even non-existent flu season, which may bode well for countries in the Northern Hemisphere that are just now entering their flu season.

As more countries implement COVID-19 precautions, the hope is that nations in the Northern Hemisphere might experience a flu hiatus this year, which would decrease fears of a possible "twindemic" of COVID-19 and influenza.

We are not seeing many cases this year,” Shanthi Kappagoda, MD, a board-certified infectious disease physician and clinical associate professor with Stanford Health Care, tells Verywell. “It is quite possible that social distancing, mask-wearing, and reducing the number of large gatherings have contributed to a lighter flu season.”

How Flu Season Is Tracked

Historically, the CDC has gathered data from each state and its subsequent jurisdictions for flu tracking and forecasting. States would use the Outpatient Influenza-Like Illness Surveillance Network (ILINET) and virologic surveillance of the percentage of specimens that test positive for influenza by both clinical and public health laboratories.

But this year, COVID-19 has impacted ILI surveillance and led the CDC to suspend the weekly State and Territorial Epidemiologists Report, which measures the estimated level of geographic spread on influenza activity in their jurisdictions, for the 2020-2021 flu season.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have avoided or sought alternatives to seeking healthcare in the usual settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and physician offices—changes that can affect ILINET numbers.

Shanthi Kappagoda, MD

It is quite possible that social distancing, mask-wearing, and reducing the number of large gatherings have contributed to a lighter flu season.

— Shanthi Kappagoda, MD

In response, the CDC created COVIDView to collect other sources of surveillance data on a weekly basis in hopes of getting a more accurate picture of both COVID-19 and influenza activity.

The "Twindemic"

While the low influenza numbers provide a positive outlook for the remainder of 2020, the United States isn’t out of the woods yet in terms of COVID-19 regional spikes and reported deaths. 

“I think we are entering another COVID-19 peak,” Kappagoda says. “There are still a number of hospital bed shortages, especially in the Midwest, and the flu season typically adds to the number of hospitalizations that could overburden our healthcare resources.”

The CDC reports that while it is possible to contract both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 at the same time, researchers are unsure how common it is to get infected with both viruses simultaneously.

“I’m definitely concerned about a ‘twindemic’ that can overwhelm our health care system.” Maggie Park, MD, a pediatrician and county public health officer for San Joaquin County in California, tells Verywell. “I hope flu season itself will not be worse, but people can have both at the same time and go through a more severe illness because of the combo.”

In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization to create a test to screen for both SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and influenza types A and B. The hope is that such a test would increase the effectiveness of public health tracking, save time and testing materials, as well as speed up test results.

What This Means For You

While the early reports from the CDC indicate this year's flu season could be mild—particularly as more people take precautions against COVID-19—it's still more important than ever to get a flu vaccine. Researchers don't know how common it is, but it is possible to get both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

Importance of Flu Shots

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of receiving the flu vaccination. The flu shot is the best way to ensure that influenza numbers stay low. 

The CDC reports that manufacturers have already distributed 172.3 million doses of flu vaccine this season and estimates providing as many as 198 million doses to the U.S. market by the end of the flu season.

Young children, people who are pregnant, people 65 years and older, and those with chronic health conditions are the most at risk for flu complications.

The flu vaccine helps protect you, your family, and your community. According to the CDC, the benefits of getting a flu shot include:

  • Preventing you from getting sick with the flu
  • Reducing the risk of flu-associated hospitalization for children, working-age adults, and older adults
  • Reducing the severity of flu illness if you do get sick
  • Protecting the people around you, especially those who have chronic health conditions, young children and older adults, and people who are pregnant

Flu shots are available at doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, college health centers, and even some employers or schools. In many cases, the flu shot is available at no or low cost, especially if you have health insurance.

If you need help locating a flu shot where you live, the CDC recommends using the VaccineFinder tool.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Weekly U.S. influenza surveillance report; 2020-2021; week 44. Updated November 6, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Virologic surveillance, weekly archive: 2019-2020; week 44.

  3. World Health Organization (WHO). Influenza update - 379. Updated October 26, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). U.S. influenza surveillance system: purpose and methods. Updated October 6, 2020.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVIDView: a weekly surveillance summary of U.S. COVID-19 activity. Updated November 6, 2020.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2020-2021 Season. Updated November 6, 2020.

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Office of the Commissioner. Emergency use authorization. Updated November 6, 2020.