What happened to flu season amid COVID pandemic?

Flu virtually disappears in US during coronavirus winter

It was believed that a flu pandemic would take place alongside the coronavirus pandemic -- but that has not been the case.
It was believed that a flu pandemic would take place alongside the coronavirus pandemic -- but that has not been the case.

After fears about a twindemic -- with the coronavirus pandemic taking place during flu season -- the flu has virtually disappeared altogether this year.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic began during flu season, which created an added challenge for doctors and hospitals. There were fears that we would face a similar situation this winter: a twindemic of flu and COVID-19. But that’s not what is happening.

Physician and epidemiologist Dr. Arnold Monto generally spends his winters studying flu trends at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. But this year, he says that the University Hospital hasn’t seen any cases of the flu this entire winter season.

Compared to last year, at this point in 2020, the flu was at high or moderate levels in most states. This year, cases are minimal in every state.

Related: Nearly 2.4 million Michigan residents have received flu vaccine this season (Nov. 2020)

The Michigan Health Department labs have reported only five positive flu tests this entire flu season.

It was the same situation in Australia last summer.

“The southern hemisphere during their winter, which, was our summer, didn’t see anything,” Monto said. “We wondered, were they looking hard enough? Since everyone was concentrated on COVID, were they forgetting to look for the flu?”

It turns out, wearing face masks and other COVID-19 precautions taken are likely a major reason behind the dramatic drop in flu cases.

“We think it may be the viruses interfering with each other,” Monto said. “There’s only place for one. And also, because of the community strategies -- wearing a face mask, social distancing -- we haven’t seen flu transmission.”

While the decreased flu spread is not an issue, it presents an interesting problem for next year.

Now, decisions need to be made about which strains of influenza next year’s flu shots will work to protect against -- but scientists don’t have any flu data to look at.

“The way the strains are usually chosen is just on what are the predominant viruses,” Monto said. “And that may be a bit of a surprise in terms of what shows up when we’ve had really no good information.”

If the flu vaccines turns out to be a poor match in the fall, that could result in a worse than usual flu season. Dr. Monto says there is as much art as there is science in picking the strains each year, but you need a little bit of luck as well...because you never know what’s going to turn up.

More: Amid COVID-19 pandemic, flu has disappeared in the US

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.