Alabama seeing less severe 2020-21 flu season

Updated: Feb. 7, 2021 at 4:06 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Earlier this year, health experts feared hospitals would be overrun this winter trying to tackle both the flu and COVID-19, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

According to this chart from the Alabama Department of Public Health, statewide influenza-like illness(ILI) is at 1.32% which is a slight increase compared to last week, but is still well below Alabama’s baseline of 3.29%. It is also a stark contrast to the over 8% of illness seen this same time the previous two flu seasons.

Alabama's weekly influzena report. Week 4: January 24,2021 - January 30,2021.
Alabama's weekly influzena report. Week 4: January 24,2021 - January 30,2021.(Source: The Alabama Department of Public Health)

Montgomery-area pulmonologist Dr. David Thrasher said in past years, city hospitals would be full of flu patients right now, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

“The fact that our flu numbers are down 60% from this time last year is just phenomenal,” Dr. Thrasher said. “That’s a blessing because if we had the normal number of people that had the flu going to the hospital, many of them end up on ventilators and many of them die every year from the flu about 40,000 on average, our hospitals would be overwhelmed.”

Health experts believe that high vaccination rates against the flu – combined with social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing employed to stop the spread of the coronavirus – played a huge role in preventing influenza transmission this season.

“Clearly, the big deal is the masks. Probably if there was no vaccinations, wearing masks would cut the numbers way down, just that alone,” Thrasher said.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, flu numbers are down across the country. Between September and December of 2019, the CDC reported 65,000 cases of the flu, and during the same period this year only 1,016 cases were reported.

This CDC flu activity map of the U.S shows that in January 2020, high or very high flu activity dominated the countries map.

CDC flu activity map for January 2020.
CDC flu activity map for January 2020.(Source: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

But in January 2021, most states are reporting minimal activity.

CDC flu activity map for January 2021.
CDC flu activity map for January 2021.(Source: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

This is all not to say that the flu has completely disappeared. ADPH reports that since October, the state has seen cases of Influenza A and B in four of it’s eight health districts, which can be seen on ADPH’s Influenza Surveillance Map. And so far, one death has been reported for the season.

ADPH is using ILINet, short for the Outpatient Influenza-Like Illness Surveillance Network, to look for flu-like illnesses that are reported by outpatient providers. Those include symptoms of fever and coughing with possible sore throat.

It’s also using a process known as Syndromatic Surveillance, which gives ADPH the ability to look at COVID-19-like illness trends up against flu-like illness trends.

Influenza season typically runs from October to May. Health experts say despite the low flu numbers this season, you should still take steps to protect yourself, including getting a flu shot.

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