Flu cases fell in California but here’s why that’s mixed news

Pandemic safety measures kept numbers low last year but now they are trending upward

By Soumya Karlamangla

The New York Times

As is the case with so many things, the pandemic flipped on its head something we once took for granted: the rampant spread of the flu.

Each year between October and May, generally considered flu season in America, millions of people catch influenza and tens of thousands die from it. The flu has consistently been one of the top 10 annual leading causes of death in the United States — until 2020.

Last year’s flu season caused about 1% of the hospitalizations and infections of an average season, according to some estimates. In California, 50 people died of the flu last winter, a huge drop from 706 deaths during the 2019-20 season.

We can think of this as a pandemic silver living: A combination of social distancing, masking and school closures that were in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus most likely also kept the flu at bay.

That’s good news, but it leaves a question mark around what’s going to happen this year. Coronavirus restrictions have been loosened, but we’re by no means back to a pre-pandemic normal.

So, you might be wondering, how bad is the flu season going to get?

The short (and frustrating) answer is that we have to wait and see. The flu season typically peaks around February, so we cannot know all that much based on what we have seen in these early months.

So far, flu case numbers nationwide and in California have been low but are trending upward.

Three Californians have died of the flu since October, including a middle-aged man in Los Angeles County. The other deaths were an elderly Californian and a person between the ages of 18-49, according to state data.

The universal indoor masking requirement that California instated this week to stem rising coronavirus numbers is likely to also limit the spread of the flu. Same goes for moving gatherings to outdoor settings, thorough hand-washing and most measures aimed at minimizing COVID-19 spread.

But the pandemic may also have less beneficial effects on flu transmission. Some experts worry that last year’s light influenza season reduced Americans’ immunity to the virus.

One mathematical model calculated that our increased susceptibility could lead to an extra 102,000 Americans hospitalized with influenza this winter — a 20% increase compared with an average flu season.

“Because of so little disease last year, population immunity is likely lower, putting us all at increased risk of disease this year, especially among the most vulnerable, including our children,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials say the best protection is a flu vaccine, which they recommend for everyone 6 months and older. Though not as effective as the COVID-19 vaccines, they are still the best way to keep yourself safe from the flu.

“That’s the only thing that really makes a difference,” Peter Palese, a microbiologist and flu expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said in a Q&A on how to prepare for flu season.

One argument in favor of getting a flu vaccine feels especially resonant nowadays: The vaccines reduce your likelihood of not just catching the flu, but of passing it on to someone else. You may be able to survive a bout with the virus, but a child or grandparent you transmit it to may not be so lucky.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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