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What flu season? Michigan influenza barely registers during COVID

throat swabs
Just four cases of influenza were confirmed last week by the network of Michigan laboratories, including the one at the University of Michigan, shown here, charged with tracking flu. (Bridge file photo by Robin Erb)

COVID-19 has brought immeasurable misery to Michigan, but it also has carried an upside: its safety precautions have nearly zeroed out the flu and appeared to lessen some other respiratory illnesses, too.

Last week, the peak of a normal flu season, the state’s surveillance network of labs confirmed just four new cases — that’s not a typo — of influenza, compared to 488 new cases the same week last year, 284 in 2019 and 536 in 2018.

That’s not all.

As anyone with youngsters knows, the colder months bring a seemingly endless cycle of common colds and general ick from less deadly viruses. But those, too, appear to be down. 

“This is the first winter that I haven't had the sniffles, even for a day,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, mom of a 6-year-old and a public health doctor with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday. 

“It has been delightful,” she said

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian
The same measures that tamp down COVID are keeping influenza at bay, said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, a public health doctor at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. (Courtesy photo)

Though health departments do not ordinarily track the common cold or other less-severe respiratory symptoms, three health professionals interviewed for this report echoed Bagdasarian’s observations. 

After warnings in the fall of a possible “twindemic” — a surge in COVID in the middle of flu season — doctors hoped more flu vaccines and sustained safety protocols would help suppress potentially-deadly flu viruses spread in the winter.

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So far, they have.

Bagdasarian and public health officials have watched Michigan’s flu data virtually flatline this season, though it’s likely some cases and outbreaks go unreported to health agencies. 

Even so, the declines this year are striking. Consider: 

  • Hospitals: Just 7 people — all adults — have been admitted for influenza since Oct. 1 in the five counties that are part of a hospital flu surveillance network for Clinton, Eaton, Genesee, Ingham and Washtenaw. That compares to 481 adults and children over the same week last year and 929 adults and children in 2018.
  • Outpatient settings: Only 11 people in more than 7,700 patient visits — 0.1 percent — appeared to have flu or influenza-like illnesses, according to a network of doctors, health departments and other providers that help the state track flu levels. That compares to 4 percent of visits labeled flu-related last year, 2.2 percent of visits in 2019, and 5.6 percent in 2018.
  • Group settings: In daycares, prisons, schools and nursing homes and other congregate settings across the state, there have been no reported outbreaks — none — so far this flu season. At this point in previous years, the number of flu outbreaks ranged from 22 to 206. 

Credit COVID, or rather our reaction to it on both a personal and systemic level, health experts said.

 

Masking, hand-washing, standing at a distance to talk help curb the spread of COVID, but also other respiratory diseases. Handshaking has gone away, at least for the time being, as have big parties and potlucks across much of the state. So have play dates, casual after-work drinks and birthday parties.

The business of “everyday” has also changed. Plexiglass divides shoppers from cashiers. Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers are ubiquitous in schools and retail spaces. (By one report, hand sanitizer sales jumped seven-fold last year.)

In classrooms, students and staff are masked, and distant, with many students attending part-time or remotely. 

In southeast Michigan, staff at Henry Ford Health System has performed more than 300,000 telehealth visits in the past year, compared to a “few thousand” each year previously, said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection control at Henry Ford. 

Even the system for flu vaccination has changed in some locations, and become safer, with packed waiting rooms giving way to distanced drive-through events.  

“You try to look at the positives, the silver lining, of COVID, and you've seen some creativity in service delivery models,” said Andrew Cox, health officer at the Macomb County Health Department, whose health department ran drive-through flu clinics last year.

The result: The number of Michigan residents getting flu shots has risen by more than 247,000 compared to this time last year, for a total of 3.4 million receiving shots. The state’s goal is nearly 4.5 million shots.

Darlene LeComte
Darlene LeComte, a registered nurse for Macomb County Health Department, administers a flu vaccine to Angela Najar, at a drive through flu vaccine clinic in October in Mount Clemens. (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

With the world gripped by COVID, there also was a precipitous decline in global travel — from international business travel to college studying abroad programs to cruise ship vacations.

Passenger levels in domestic and international travel dropped 60 percent last year because of COVID, with 1.8 billion global passengers in the air in 2020, compared to 4.5 billion in 2019, according to the civil air agency of the United Nations. 

“I think it's a fairly safe assumption that these (factors) are all COVID related. The exact factors of how it happened, we're still figuring that out,” said Dr. Josh Petrie, researcher at the Michigan Influenza Center at the University of Michigan, one of a network of labs that each year help the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track the flu.

Certainly, he and others added, the season isn’t over. And it’s difficult to say what this year’s low flu cases mean for the next seasons. The lack of flu this year will make it more difficult to predict next year’s strains and subsequently match next year’s vaccine to it, Petrie noted.

Moreover, with fewer flu cases, immunity against the virus may wane over time. That’s because antibodies against influenza naturally decrease over time until they are boosted again by another infection or vaccination, he said.

Yet many of our lives have likely changed forever, and that may help to suppress flu outbreaks in the future. 

Individual habits, even as we reunite in a new normal, may last.

Michiganders may now be more comfortable in saying ‘no,’ — no to hand-shaking when they’re sick, and ‘no’ to coming in to work when symptoms appear, said Bagdasarian of the state health department. 

And masks, at least for some, may be part of a new normal, said Henry Ford’s Cunningham.

“I don't know that we will ever go back to normal,” he said. For respiratory viruses, that might be bad news, but as Cunningham quipped: “I'm alright if they’re upset.”

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