Health officials say COVID-19 precautions reducing flu cases

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Marian Accardi, The Decatur Daily, Ala.
·4 min read
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Feb. 23—The same steps that have helped reduce COVID-19 transmission have also resulted in fewer cases of the flu, according to local health professionals.

"There is flu out there, but we have not had the reports of uptake that we have had in years gone by," said Alabama Department of Public Health Administrator for the Northern District Judy Smith. "Part of the reason for that is people doing what they needed to do (to combat COVID-19), for the most part, with distancing, masking. The same things that you would use to prevent this disease are the same things you would use to prevent the flu."

The ADPH reported 259 influenza-associated deaths in 2018 and 95 deaths in 2019. Last year, 20 influenza-associated deaths were reported. For this year through Feb. 13, three flu-associated deaths have been reported.

In the ADPH Northern District, which includes Morgan, Limestone, Lawrence and nine other counties, 1.55% of outpatient visits were due to flu-like illness for the week ending Feb. 13, ADPH data shows. In the same period the previous two years, more than 8% of outpatient visits were for flu-like illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seasonal influenza activity nationwide remains lower than usual for this time of the year.

In the U.S., 1.1% of patient visits to health care providers reported through the U.S. Outpatient Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network were due to flu-like illness for the week ending Feb. 13.

"It does work," Smith said of precautionary measures that protect not only against COVID-19 but other respiratory viruses. "If you stay away from folks that are sick, protect yourself with a barrier, i.e. a mask," and follow sanitation guidelines, "you're going to cut down on a lot of things including the flu."

The state health department cautioned that other respiratory ailments are now circulating throughout Alabama and can present similar symptoms as influenza.

The number of people testing positive for the flu at Decatur Morgan Hospital is "minimal" compared to the number of cases typical at this time of the year, said Decatur Morgan President Kelli Powers. "All the things we're doing to keep COVID down has helped with the flu," she said.

Athens-Limestone Hospital has had no inpatients with flu this year, according to spokesperson Felicia Lambert.

The Morgan County Health Department administered 505 flu shots during the fall and winter, in addition to those given by other providers like physicians' offices and pharmacies, Smith said. She said that response, coupled with COVID-19 preventive measures, "is believed to have had a significant and real impact" in decreasing flu cases.

Favorable trends are also continuing locally when it comes to COVID-19.

"We're down to nine inpatients" with COVID-19, with two in the ICU and one on a ventilator, Powers said at a news conference Monday. At one point, the hospital had more than 100 COVID-19 inpatients, Powers said. The hospital has had as many as 31 patients on ventilators during the pandemic.

Seventeen Morgan County residents were reported by ADPH on Monday as having new COVID-19 cases, increasing the rolling daily average of new cases to 13. That daily average peaked at 146 shortly before Christmas. The rolling 14-day average of the percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID-19 in Morgan County was at 9.4% Monday. It peaked the first week of January at 59.4%.

Smith stressed that people need to continue practicing COVID-19 protocols and get the vaccine when they're eligible.

"This is still a serious illness," Smith said. ADPH data shows 241 Morgan County residents have died of the disease, with about half of those deaths reported since Jan. 1.

The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months old and older, with rare exceptions. Health officials urged people to get flu shots during 2020-2021 to reduce the risk of illness, hospitalization and death and to save health care resources for the care of patients with COVID-19.

Smith said people who have just had a flu, shingles or other vaccination should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine for at least two weeks.

"We've actually had to defer a few folks who came for the COVID vaccine because they had just had a shingles vaccination or a flu vaccination," Smith said.

The ADPH on Monday said 22 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, originally detected in the United Kingdom, have been detected in Madison, Autauga, Montgomery, Jefferson, Mobile, Elmore and Crenshaw counties. The ADPH said initial study indicates the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are effective against the variant, and the variant "has not been definitively linked to worse outcomes of the disease."

ADPH said it is receiving about 90,000 vaccine doses per week, although inclement weather last week caused shipment of 10,000 doses to be delayed.

marian.accardi@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.