The Centers for Disease Control reported this month that the number of global flu infections has hit record lows so far this year, which could ease fears that the combination of influenza and the coronavirus pandemic would overwhelm hospitals and other care facilities this winter, according to The Hill.
Influenza hits the southern hemisphere before it comes to the United States each year, and this year was so much smaller than other years that it has drawn the attention of experts.
“They had amazingly low transmission rates,” University of Iowa epidemiologist Christine Petersen said. “There was no decent levels of transmission anywhere, except for Southeast Asia.”
In Chile, South Africa and Australia, for instance, there were only 51 influenza positive specimens among 83,307 tests for a positivity rate of 0.06%. The normal positivity rate is around 14%.
“Lower levels than expected”
The rate during the height of the season was 36 cases of 1,000 people; the normal level would be around 200 cases per 1,000 people, or nearly six times higher than it actually was.
“Globally, despite continued or even increased testing for influenza in some countries, influenza activity remained at lower levels than expected for this time of year,” the WHO wrote in early November.
In a more typical year in the U.S., the CDC says that influenza caused more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths in the 2018-2019 season.
This year, only 1.5% of visits to health providers were for flu. Since September, 122,000 people were tested for the flu, and 319 have been positive so far.
Coronavirus mitigation keeping flu numbers down
Experts attribute the lower numbers to the mask-wearing and social distancing taking place to mitigate the coronavirus. Another reason could be a more-effective flu vaccine, although they won’t know until next year how many people got flu shots.
The CDC was quick to say that it was too soon to tell whether the U.S. would experience the kind of low levels of influenza seen in other parts of the world, but it is likely based on the much-lower numbers seen elsewhere around the world.
Low levels of flu infections would leave more hospital beds for coronavirus patients with severe infections, most of which are in people 65 and older.
Similarly to the coronavirus, the CDC reports that more older people are hospitalized and die from the flu than younger people.