WATERTOWN — When Dr. Marylene J. Duah, of the infectious disease department at Samaritan Medical Center, asked recently how many flu cases they had hospitalized at the time, there had only been one case of influenza B at the Washington Street facility.
Normally, Dr. Duah said the hospital would see at least five cases per week, if not more, during flu season.
As hospitals in New York continue to cope with COVID-19 patients amid the ongoing pandemic, one less worry comes in the form of significantly lower flu rates as compared to the 2019-20 season.
As each COVID test given at the hospital also tests for the flu, Dr. Duah said the low numbers aren’t due to a lack of testing, but instead partly attributed to safety measures taken by community members amid the pandemic.
“We are seeing a much lower rate than even expected,” Dr. Duah said. “Partly the social distancing, schooling — not having as many kids bringing the flu home, less travel may also play a role.”
According to data from the state Department of Health, St. Lawrence County experienced a total of 2,008 flu cases for the 2019-20 season and only 17 so far for the 2020-21 season. In Lewis County, the 286 flu cases seen during the 2019-20 season have given way to just six cases so far in the 2020-21 season, according to the data.
In Jefferson County, there had been 116 confirmed influenza cases this season as of Feb. 4 — 39 were influenza A and 77 were influenza B. For 2019 in Jefferson County, there were 770 cases of confirmed influenza between the same time period — 75 were influenza A, 691 were influenza B and four were unspecified, according to data from the Jefferson County Public Health Service.
Typically at this point in the season, influenza activity levels are considered to be geographically widespread, but the county has not surpassed the regional marker this season, and as of Friday, activity levels had been downgraded to sporadic, according to Stephen A. Jennings, public health planner for Jefferson County.
Mr. Jennings said this difference is likely attributed to the COVID-19 prevention measures put in place, including masking in public, regular disinfection of commonly touched surfaces and social distancing.
Flu season runs from October through May, with influenza B generally considered to be less severe than influenza A.
This season, there have been nearly 3,000 cases of the flu in New York — 2,925 to date as compared to the total for the last season, which was a little more than 70,000 cases over the same period of time.
The flu is a contagious illness that affects the nose, throat, lungs and other parts of the body. It can spread quickly from one person to another and can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Unlike a cold, flu symptoms start suddenly. They appear about one to four days after a person is exposed to the flu. Flu symptoms may include fever, cough, headache, sore throat, muscle or body aches and can be similar to those of COVID-19.
Both COVID and the flu spread the same way — by droplets. A person sneezes or coughs then the droplets are in the air, free to land on surfaces and infect them.
“There’s some question whether COVID has a little more wide infection than the flu,” Dr. Duah said. “Whether there is a little bit more airborne — meaning the droplets are not as heavy as the flu droplets — so they don’t land as fast, so they stay in the air longer, and therefore become more infectious.”
An annual flu vaccine is recommended for almost everyone six months and older as one of the best ways to reduce flu illnesses, hospitalizations and death from flu.
Before this current flu season, Dr. Duah said there was concern over having COVID and flu running rampant at the same time, causing a “twindemic.” Luckily, that never occurred, possibly in part due to the fear of said twindemic leading to many people getting vaccinated for the season, Dr. Duah said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 200 million doses of this year’s flu vaccine have been distributed nationally so far, compared to 174.2 million doses in total for the 2019-20 flu season.
“I recommend everybody get vaccinated till April, if they can, and they should get vaccinated before they can get their COVID vaccine because they should be two weeks apart,” Dr. Duah said.