HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO) — Pandemic precautions have greatly slowed the spread of the flu virus this year but with restrictions softening, we could be in for a summer spike in cases.
So far fewer than two thousand flu cases have been reported for the 2020-2021 flu season, which typically peaks from October until March. Flu deaths are also down, particularly amongst children.
“Last year there was over 180 pediatric deaths from influenza, and this year there’s been one,” said Dr. James Castillo, the Cameron County health authority.
According to data from the CDC, the U.S. has seen 13,000 fewer flu cases than an average year. Castillo credits the stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and mask mandates for keeping those numbers so low.
“Some of it is that the schools haven’t been at full capacity. Lots of kids are staying home and with the flu, unlike with COVID, kids are a big source of spread,” said Castillo.
The influenza virus is spread through droplets, much like COVID is, so mask mandates that were put in place during the usual peak months for flu helped slow the spread down.
Similarly, students either learning from home or having reduced classroom sizes has kept young children, one of the most vulnerable groups, from catching and spreading the disease in school and to their families.
Not only are children some of the most vulnerable to flu, but they are also one of the groups most likely to spread it. CDC data shows that children are often sick with the influenza virus for longer durations than adults.
And now that in-person learning is returning, so is the flu. Dr. Castillo told KVEO that “we’re already starting to see an uptick of flu right now.”
Historically, the warmer summer months would have the fewest number of flu cases, but this year could be different. An extremely low number of flu cases in the winter and a populace eager to return to normal life could lead to a delayed flu season for the ’20-’21 season.
In fact, the lack of flu cases over the previous year could actually mean more people get infected this year.
“If you go around without getting exposed to a virus for long enough, and then it comes back around, that’s more potential victims of that virus,” said Castillo. “That’s why getting the flu vaccine is so important.”
Castillo said he was hopeful that lessons learned during the COVID pandemic about wearing masks to prevent infection would be used for other diseases.
“I think people have developed some habits with COVID that will probably keep on helping in terms of influenza,” Castillo said.