This year’s weird flu season is even weirder

A man exposes his arm to get a flu shot as a doctor wipes down the space where he will be vaccinated with alcohol.

Photo: Kristopher Radder / The Brattleboro Reformer (PA)

Even though covid-19 continues to dominate public health projectorour old friend the flu shows up with a few new surprises. Jhis year’s flu season doesn’t follow the usual bell-curve pattern, as NBC chart illustrated, where cases peak around January and February, then fall towards the end of April. Instead, the the flu has maintained its rhythm in May.

Things were on a relatively normal trajectory until about 10 weeks, when cases declined and leveled off. In March, cases began to rise and peaked at around 10% of all positive flu tests in April. The flu has now lingered into May, although overall cases are still low compared with to the average flu season before covid-19.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, between last October and April 30, the number of people who taken the the flu is between 5.7 million and 9.6 million. There have been approximately 59,000 to 120,000 hospitalizations and between 3,600 and 10,000 cases of influenza death. Although these numbers are higher than last year’s season-what was practically non-existentas people wore masks and avoided congregating – they still paint a picture of a relatively mild flu season. In 2018-19for example, about 35.5 million people have contracted the flu, and 34,200 people died from it.

Experts told NBC that the country is not close to epidemic flu levels by all means, but the persistent nature is remarkable compared to virtually every other year since 1982when the United States experienced a few intense outbreaks in late May.

An image showing the United States as mostly green states with low influenza activity, but Puerto Rico, New Mexico and Colorado are red or orange.

Chart: CDC

Fortunately, we avoided a major or even moderate flu season this year, because the most recent vaccines were poorly adapted to the circulating virus. strains, resulting in a vaccine effectiveness of only 16%. While the CDC said this year’s vaccine may not have reduced the risk of getting sick flu, he continued to recommend the shotbecause the data shows it makes symptoms less severe and reduces the risk of hospitalization or death.

Efforts to fight covid-19, including the wearing of masks, helped stop the flu in its tracks, even as the more contagious coronavirus continued to spread. As more people resume in-person gatherings and mask requirements are lifted, it’s no surprise that the flu is returning to our lives. Hopefully, masking when sick and during outbreaks is now normalized enough in the United States that we can avoid the devastating flu seasons we once accepted as routine.

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