Following COVID and calls for flu vaccinations, where has influenza gone?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Bottles of cold and flu medicine, plus vitamins, sit on a home countertop. This year is one of the lowest influenza seasons on record, according to the CDC. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW.

Coronavirus has dominated America’s collective consciousness for almost a year now. Meanwhile, another respiratory virus usually peaks this time of year: seasonal influenza. Tens of thousands of people die from the flu annually. 

There’s often an outbreak at work or school, but not this year. The CDC says across the entire country, flu activity is minimal. In California, only a tiny percentage of tests have come back positive. It seems like the pandemic might have eradicated the flu this season.

Dr. Tara Vijayan is a professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. She says the last time a patient of hers had the flu was February 2020. 

“Many of us suspect that the mitigation efforts that are underway to prevent coronavirus are actually helping substantially with influenza.”

Like COVID-19, influenza often spreads via respiratory droplets. But Vijayan points out that coronavirus is more transmissible than influenza, requiring less exposure to the virus to get sick. She notes children have the capacity to be influenza carriers, and since they’re not physically at schools, they might play a role in low flu activity. 

Vijayan points out that countries across the southern hemisphere, such as Chile, also reported low transmission of influenza last summer. 

“We were all bracing for the ‘twindemics’ of influenza and COVID. But we've been very grateful that we haven't seen as much influenza.” 

That’s due partly to a robust vaccination campaign in 2020. 

“People were much more aware of it. And I've had patients who were always reluctant to get the flu shot. And this year, they really made an effort.”

Moving forward, she says the pandemic has made her aware of how important it is to stay home when sick. 

“Our economy is not always built for that. Not everybody gets paid time off and child care is a huge issue. But I do think that moving forward, we all just have to be more mindful of when we have the slightest symptom, maybe we need to actually distance ourselves and stay home,” she says.

Credits

Guest:
Dr. Tara Vijayan - professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser