United States feels relief from influenza infections as COVID-19 pandemic rages on

MADISON, Wis.– While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage through the United States, the country is feeling relief from another popular respiratory illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local doctors are describing this influenza season as unusually mild.

“This one hardly feels like a flu season at all,” Medical Director of Infection Control at UW Health Dr. Nasia Safdar said. “Typically it starts around November, December give or take a few weeks and the continues well into February or March.”

UW Health has treated one patient for influenza so far during the 2020/2021 influenza season. By this time during the 2019/2020 season, they had treated 971 patients and 149 patients the season before that.

“Some seasons are better than others, but one where we hardly have any cases, I can’t remember that happening in recent memory,” Safdar said.

A map from the CDC shows both the state of Wisconsin and the country have minimal flu activity.

“Historically, nearly unprecedented,” UW-Madison professor of medical history Richard Keller said.

Both Safdar and Keller say there are many contributors to this mild season, the most obvious being COVID-19 precautions.

“Masking, hand hygiene, not engaging in large gatherings, all of those things are helping curtail the transmission of influenza,” Safdar said.

Less international travel and less testing are also possible causes of the low case numbers.

It’s too hard to say if people will choose to throw on a mask during future respiratory infection seasons.

“People tend to think of flu as a fairly mild, nuisance illness, rather than the killer that it can certainly be,” Keller said.

If there’s one think Safdar hopes people take away from the pandemic, it’s recognizing that when people are sick, they should stay home.

“You shouldn’t go to school. You shouldn’t go to work,” Safdar said. “That was always the recommendation, but it was variably enforced and many people didn’t necessarily follow it.”

The only downside to a mild flu season is it could make it difficult to predict which strain might be popular next year and that affects vaccine planning, according to Keller.