At first, it may seem like we caught a break. But the extremely mild flu season is not some solitary miracle in the middle of one of the most trying times in modern history — it has happened for a reason, and knowing why can save lives in the future.

Since the time it became clear how bad the novel coronavirus would be, health officials have been worried that a bad flu season at the same time, a “twin-demic” would further overwhelm hospitals and complicate efforts to keep death rates down.

Thankfully, the flu season this year has so far been not only mild but historically so. After the 2019-20 flu season ended abruptly last spring in Northern Hemisphere, with the 22,000 deaths nationwide on the low end of expectations, it has barely surfaced in the Southern Hemisphere as that half of the globe entered winter.

And now that winter has returned to North America, influenza is not spreading here either. The New York Times reported in December that flu activity at that time was about half as much as usual, and experts believe the February peak will be about a quarter of its usual size.

The important question is, why? Certainly, the strict lockdowns, mask requirements and focus on hygiene that started with the appearance of COVID-19 at the beginning of last year helped cut short last flu season here and limit influenza’s spread this fall and winter.

Those same measures this summer limited spread in the Southern Hemisphere, where influenza strains go that time of year to gain strength. Without that opportunity, lesser flu strains may have won out. Travel bans out of New Zealand and Australia likely played a role, too, in keeping the flu from coming back to the U.S.

Greater use of the flu vaccine might be a factor as well. Though the data are not complete, it appears Australia administered millions more flu shots last year than the previous one. Shots were ahead of pace in the U.S. in December as well.

Figuring out how each of these factors, and others, contributed to the muted flu season is key to changing the approach in the future. You wouldn’t want to shut down businesses or travel to stop the flu each year, but hard facts on this season could show how targeted interventions, such as mask requirements, could be helpful if used judiciously.

Perhaps, too, a successful rollout of the COVID vaccines could convince more Americans to get the flu shot each year. Vaccination rates for the seasonal flu have been rising for years, but still only slightly more than half of Americans get the shot in a given year.

The less-than-mild flu season should put to bed for once and for all the ridiculous argument that COVID-19 is no worse. Besides the stark difference in deaths — the flu killed 42 Mainers last year, while as of Friday COVID was responsible for 426 deaths and counting — it should strike everyone that the measures put in place to stop COVID halted the flu in its tracks, while thousands of Americans are dying every day from the novel coronavirus.

But it should also tell us that we can lower the threat the flu season brings every year by applying every we’ve learned through the difficult months we’ve endured.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: