Why the Flu Season Is Almost Non-Existent in 2021

Every year, prior to the onset of summer, the flu season sets in, resulting in influenza and related conditions. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Every year, prior to the onset of summer, the flu season sets in, resulting in influenza and related conditions affecting people across varying age groups and demographics. However, the number of cases in 2021 was unremarkable and the main reason is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

This was in contrast to the claim made by some infectious disease experts who said that the COVID-19 pandemic may turn into a “twindemic”, aided by seasonal influenza; however, that was not the case.

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Per data obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 2,000 influenza cases were registered in the U.S. since last September. In any other year, the number would cross 200,000 in the same period. Just 1.2 percent of total patient visits were related to influenza since the beginning of the season, which is below the national baseline of 2.6 percent.

Many health experts believe the flu season will return once the pandemic restrictions are removed.
A claim was made by some infectious disease experts who said the COVID-19 pandemic may turn into a ‘twindemic,’ aided by seasonal influenza; however, that was not the case. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Why the flu season was a bust in 2021

While it may seem odd that the U.S. and other nations have not been impacted by influenza this year, the reasons are not hard to uncover. The lingering pandemic and its resurgent waves have made people adopt preventive measures in unprecedented ways.

The near mandatory social distancing and mask-wearing contributed to a fall in the number of influenza cases this year. Also, businesses, schools, and colleges remained closed going into 2021. Therefore, workers and students were less exposed to the flu virus.

Furthermore, people avoided airports, train and bus stations, and public transportation in general which all served as local “hotspots” for transmission of the flu in years past. In other words, people were spending most of their time indoors and used protective gear and practiced social distancing whenever they ventured out which resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of flu cases.

While both are respiratory infections, the coronavirus is significantly more contagious as compared to influenza. Chicago-based Case Integrative Health’s medical director Dr. Casey Kelley said, “Any precaution you take to avoid COVID will also reduce your risk of contracting an influenza virus. Hand washing, social distancing, and wearing masks are certainly driving down cases of the flu.”

People avoided airports, train and bus stations, and public transportation in general, which all served as local ‘hotspots’ for the transmission of flu in years past. (Image: Dreamstime.com © James Jiao)

Why is the coronavirus on a rampage, but not the flu season?

Despite the vaccination drives and preventive measures adopted by many countries, the coronavirus is still ravaging in many regions of the world including South America and East Asia. At the same time, the flu virus is lying low in these regions as people are taking precautions and have some amount of immunity against the less infectious influenza. In contrast, the much more contagious coronavirus continues to mutate and spread in regional “hot spots” such as South America and East Asia as much of the population remains unvaccinated. 

Dr. Casey Kelley says, “No one on Earth had antibodies to COVID-19 when the outbreak started, so every interaction was an opportunity for it to spread. Besides, the Covid-19 symptoms can be unpredictable and a section of infected people, especially the young, are asymptomatic. So, they end up serving as virus spreaders without being aware of it.” 

Will the flue season make a comeback?

Many health experts believe the flu season will return once the pandemic restrictions are removed. Dr. John Showalter, a communicable diseases expert, thinks that the flu is among the commonest and persistent ailments. Thus, “minimal flu activity does not mean it is gone for good, as mitigation measures to thwart the coronavirus will help to check the spread of the flu only as long as they remain in place.”

It is hard to say what will happen when the flu virus does return. Health experts are hinting at various possibilities. Several countries, including the U.S., are starting to lift restrictions, and returning to a more normal routine without the use of masks and social distancing. The flu virus may or may not return as a stronger variant following the lifting of restrictions as it’s too early to tell.

Richard Webby, a virologist affiliated with Memphis’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital said, “We don’t really have a clue. We’re in uncharted territory. We haven’t had an influenza season this low, I think as long as we’ve been measuring it. So what the potential implications are is a bit unclear.”

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