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Iowa flu deaths drop drastically with COVID precautions in place
As temperatures started dropping last fall, local health experts were 'extremely worried” that the coming flu season might only compound the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the virus already weighing heavily on hospitals, Linn County Public Health Clinical Services Branch Supervisor Heather Meador said the county was apprehensive about how the health care system would handle more strain.
And health experts weren't quite sure how the two viruses would interact - if someone already had COVID-19, would he or she have a harder time dealing with the flu, and vice versa?
'We had a lot of concerns going into the influenza season,” Meador said.
However, a mix of pandemic precautions and a heightened flu awareness has made this flu season incredibly mild in Iowa and nationally.
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, as of Feb. 27, five Iowans have died of influenza this season, all adults. By late February 2020, in comparison, 35 Iowans died, one a child.
According to the Washington Post, by March 2 about 450 adults across the country had died from the flu, a much smaller number than the roughly 22,000 who died from it last year.
Practices to stop the spread of COVID-19, like wearing a mask and social distancing, have contributed to keeping the flu from spreading this season, said Johnson County Public Health Community Health Division Manager Sam Jarvis.
'I think many would look at that as a great indicator that social distancing, wearing a mask and the hyper vigilance of covering your cough and washing your hands is really having a big impact on respiratory viruses,” Jarvis said.
Dr. Paul McCray, a University of Iowa Health Care researcher and professor who has been working on coronavirus research for years, said all other respiratory illnesses haven't been as prevalent this year due to more people staying home and practicing safety measures.
'We usually have kids in the hospital all through the winter months with all kinds of viral pneumonia, severe asthma exacerbations,” McCray said. 'All that has just crashed down.”
South of the university, Washington County Public Health Director Danielle Pettit-Majewski explained that flu and the novel coronavirus spread the same ways.
'Influenza is a virus, and COVID is a virus,” she said. 'They are different, but they are spread the same way. People are doing all the mitigation efforts.”
The Washington Post reported that a dominant pathogen, like the coronavirus, can cause people to have partial immunity to other viruses. This, combined with mitigation efforts and existing immunity, have almost completely stopped flu circulation.
Jarvis said a lack of large gatherings, like those at work or school, have also made an impact on flu mitigation. Before the pandemic, employees might have gone to work while sick. But now that far more people are working from home, the chances of spread illnesses have declined.
In addition to COVID-19 precautions, work was done at the national level to prepare for the flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of the week of Feb. 26, 193.8 million flu vaccines had been distributed throughout the United States, breaking the record of 175 million flu shots the season before.
In Iowa, 1,254,869 doses of flu vaccine were distributed by Feb. 27.
Jarvis said the county saw a lot of interest from the community in receiving a flu shot in the fall. Flu vaccine distribution there is at least on par with last year, if not higher, he said.
He noted that those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine should still get a flu shot.
COVID-19 and influenza share quite a few symptoms, according to Linn County Public Health, including cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue and body aches. However, flu symptoms do not include shortness of breath or sneezing.
With such a minor flu season, there is a possibility of the next one hitting hard if practices brought on by COVID-19 are done away with.
The Washington Post reported that data from countries including Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh showed the flu resurging as students returned to in-person learning and other restrictions were lifted, said Lynette Brammer, who leads the CDC's domestic influenza surveillance team.
A resurgence of the flu still is possible this year, the Post reported, if precautions aren't followed.
It's hard to say for sure if next year's flu season will be worse due to a mild one this year, Jarvis said, because no one can predict whether life will go completely back to normal by the time fall rolls around.
He said he hopes people will continue mitigation efforts even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, including hygiene practices and staying home when sick.
McCray suggested that mask wearing become a more accepted practice - at least when someone is sick. It's not a weakness to wear a mask, he said, but rather a practice that prevents the disruption of school, work and other aspects of life.
'Maybe people will think, you know wearing a mask if I have a bad cold is not a bad thing,” he said.
James Jennings of the Southeast Iowa Union and Vanessa Miller of The Gazette contributed.