The COVID-19 pandemic has been a horrible experience for the past two years, but it had one silver lining – beating the flu.
As I have written before, the annual rite of winter life, flu outbreaks, became almost nothing during the 2020-21 flu season. On average, the flu infects roughly 30 million Americans every year and kills over 30,000. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that over 650,000 people die of respiratory illnesses related to the flu.
As with COVID-19, the elderly, the poor, and people of color are all overrepresented among the victims of the flu. Moreover, the annual economic cost of the flu in the USA averages nearly $90 billion.
Of course, things changed during the 2020-21 flu season. The US had only around 2,000 cases of the flu. No, that is not a typo, there were only 2,000 flu cases in the USA during the 2020-21 flu season. In other words, there were 17,000 times fewer flu cases than the 35 million cases during the 2019-2020 flu season.
During the 2019-20 flu season, 199 children died of the virus. In 2020-21, only one child died.
In fact, other respiratory viruses nearly disappeared during the COVID-19 pandemic – respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza, rhinovirus, and adenovirus. I’ve been watching infectious diseases for decades, and this was truly amazing.
So how can we stop the flu once the COVID-19 pandemic is done? And that’s where it gets complicated.
Using COVID-19 lessons to stop the flu?
Through a giant epidemiological experiment called the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have figured out a method to stop the flu. Behavioral and societal changes that were adopted to stop the spread of COVID-19 seem to have stopped the flu – face masks, social distancing, remote learning, remote working, and limited indoor and outdoor gatherings.
Despite how inconsistent those measures were employed throughout the USA (different states and different localities did different things), they helped slow COVID-19. But those same measures completely crushed the flu, which is less transmissible and the population has some immunity to it. In other words, the world was trying to flatten the COVID-19 curve and ended up burying the flu for one year.
Now comes the problem. We now know how to triumph over the flu which, in pandemic seasons, can be just as dangerous as COVID-19. Should we go back to a world where 30,000 Americans die of the flu? I think that’s an unethical choice, despite the massive pushback I’m seeing across the world to vaccine and mask mandates.
I’m certain that politicians across the world lack the willpower and fortitude to insist on continuing public health measures that could save hundreds of thousands of lives. The coronavirus pandemic was a clear and present danger, yet many countries relaxed measures once they thought the pandemic had passed, which always lead to the next wave.
Although there is not a consensus as to whether we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’ve heard it so many times I’ll believe it when we’re at zero cases for at least 12 months, people are acting as if we are in the clear. That means that there could be a terrible twindemic of flu and COVID-19 during this winter.
Even though there is close to a zero percent chance of a broad mandate for public health measures to stop the flu, since people across the world consider the flu more of a nuisance than the danger it actually is, what might work?
- Practice one’s own public health mandate – wear a mask in public, socially distance, avoid large gatherings of people, and get the flu vaccine. Remember, wearing a mask not only provides protection against those who are spitting out viruses, but limits the spread of virus from one’s own breath.
- In areas that are experiencing a high flu outbreak, implement the procedures of the last year – remote learning and working, mask mandates, and other measures to reduce the spread of the flu.
To be frank, face masks and the flu vaccine are your best choices for beating the flu. As we know, the vaccine is imperfect, because the flu virus frequently mutates. And of course, flu vaccine uptake is around 50% in most years.
Believe it or not, the CDC has issued interim guidance for wearing masks during flu season – in 2004! Given how the CDC was treated during this COVID-19 pandemic with regards to mask-wearing, I sincerely doubt that they will update that guidance and recommend it to the country.
I can ony hope
During my lifetime, only one infectious disease has been completely conquered by vaccines and strict public health measures – smallpox. We are very close to eradicating polio with vaccines, but anti-vaxxers and their pernicious false narratives could harm that. We were very close to eliminating measles, then a cunning fraud in the UK tried to convince the world that the measles vaccine caused autism (it doesn’t, in case you were wondering), and it’s back to being endemic in places where it had nearly disappeared.
Could we do the same with the flu? Well, based on the results from the 2020-21 flu season, one begins to wonder about it. Of course, the problem with the influenza virus is that it has reservoirs in many animal species, so it will be difficult to imagine a way to completely eradicate the virus.
But I’m appalled that we do not have the societal or political will to save thousands of lives each ear from the flu. Of course, the USA has had over 720,000 COVID-19 deaths, and it’s difficult to get politicians and citizens to get vaccinated. Or wear masks. Saving 30,000 deaths probably is too much of an ask, at least in this country. Of course, given how fast every country wants to get out of COVID-19 restrictions, I doubt it would be any different in the Netherlands, UK, or Australia.
The USA suffers from one other problem that will allow the flu to come back hard – it’s the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave. In other words, employees who have the flu have an economic reason to go to work sick and infect others – they need to get paid. This one change could have an enormous impact on the transmission of flu.
I know I’m dreaming here. The chances that we will do anything to stop the flu is approximately zero. The CDC, governments, politicians, everyone is tired of COVID-19. And, despite having no relationship to reality, people think the flu is nothing. Even the disgraced Donald Trump tried to claim that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu – of course, most of us who understood the dangers of the flu knew that was worse than he thought.
It’s too bad. We could put a stop to the flu, now I’m worried that we’re going to have a much worse flu season than predicted.
Well, I’m going to wear my face mask. And I’ve gotten the flu vaccine for this year. And I will continue to avoid big crowds. I hope many of you do the same.
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