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The flu is barely spreading this year in King County. Heres why – Seattle PI

By

Jan 20, 2021

As coronavirus cases tick up across King County, the “twindemic” public health officials had feared in anticipation of flu season hasn’t materialized.

In fact, the flu appears to be barely spreading at all this season in King County.

“The numbers are way lower than what we see by this time in a typical year,” said Janet Baseman, a professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Epidemiology. “Typically by now were seeing quite a few, maybe hundreds of cases per week.”

Public Health — Seattle & King County said positive influenza tests on their own do not have to be reported, so the agency doesn’t have a comprehensive count. Its data includes what has been reported to the CDC’s National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System by participating labs. So far this season as of last week, based on that data, there had been fewer than 15 positive cases.

That is markedly lower than the number of cases reported at the same time last year, when the county was reporting hundreds of positive tests a week.

King County has also reported no deaths from the flu and no outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

Influenza spreads in many of the same ways the coronavirus does, such as through coughing, sneezing and people being close together.

All of the precautions people are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 — including wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and not gathering indoors, along with many people working remotely — is likely helping to both limit transmission of the coronavirus and the flu.

“We believe the dip in influenza cases this season is likely due to the COVID prevention measures,” a spokesperson from Public Health said in an email. “Everything from mask wearing, to increased hand washing, to people being more likely to stay home when they’re not feeling well, to fewer people in close contact with one another have likely contributed to the marked drop in influenza cases this year.”

The strict protocols in long-term care facilities are also likely helping to prevent flu outbreaks.

“Most years, we see the bulk of influenza outbreaks and deaths in long-term care facilities, so the special precautions these facilities have instituted to help prevent COVID have also certainly helped prevent the influenza cases in these settings,” Public Health said.

There likely isn’t one key behavior people are doing that is helping to prevent the spread of the flu, but it’s a combination of a number of factors, Baseman said. Precautions work better when you use more than one of them, she said.

“Each layer you add on reduces risk … the benefits accumulate as you do more than one,” Baseman said.

The state hasn’t yet hit what would be the peak of a typical flu season, so it’s possible cases could rise over the next few months.

But based on what the county has been seeing so far, it’s likely cases will remain low if people’s behaviors stay the same over the course of the next couple of months, Baseman said.

Public Health said January and February are typically the time of the year when the county sees its highest numbers of flu cases.

“However, any increase will be above the very low baseline numbers of cases we are currently experiencing,” Public Health said. “COVID-19 prevention measures in particular, but also vaccination and school closures, have helped contribute to the low flu transmission seen this fall and winter.  Given that COVID-19 prevention measures will be in place for the indefinite future, we don’t anticipate a surge in flu cases in the coming months.”

This year, public health officials also made a big push for people to get their flu shots. During the fall, officials said multiple times getting the flu shot was essential this year to protect people from the flu and to make sure hospitals had enough resources in the event of a fall surge of the coronavirus.

Compared to the same time last year, a larger percentage of people got their flu shots this year in September and October of 2020. Public Health doesn’t yet have complete data from November and December of 2020.

This year, there have also been fewer tests done for the flu when compared to past years. That could be for a number of reasons, including that people have changed their behaviors in seeking healthcare due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the drop in testing doesn’t account for the lack of positive flu tests, health officials said.

“The magnitude of the decrease in cases is unprecedented – from several hundred per week this time last year to nearly none per week this year – and cannot be explained by the drop in tests done alone,” Public Health said.

“Given the very low levels of flu we’ve seen nationwide, and the likely explanation that COVID-19 prevention measures in particular have also helped to slow the spread of the flu, it’s unlikely this low level of positive results is simply due to fewer people having been tested.”

The same trend is being seen across the country, with low levels of flu. Previously, countries that experienced their flu seasons at different times during the year and had coronavirus precautions in place also saw low rates of influenza.

For people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms, health officials have a piece of advice: quarantine and get a coronavirus test. With high rates of coronavirus and low rates of the flu, it might be more likely.

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