North Carolina is on track for record-low flu-related deaths, data show. Here’s why

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Bailey Aldridge
·3 min read
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North Carolina could see a record-low number of flu-related deaths this season as experts say precautions taken amid the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to slowing the spread of other illnesses.

The state has reported five flu-related deaths between the end of September 2020 and Thursday, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. And officials say there have been “very low levels of influenza” so far this season.

“Influenza-like illness” remained low in the week ending Feb. 20, with a “sporadic” spread of the virus reported, according to the most recent data from the state health department.

No new deaths were reported the week of Feb. 20, and only one was reported last month, data show. One death was reported in January, two in December and one in October.

Four of the recorded deaths have been among those ages 65 and older and one among those ages 25 to 49.

How does this compare to past seasons?

North Carolina is on track to see a record-low number of flu-related deaths this season since the state health department started recording deaths in 2009, Erica Wilson, a medical epidemiologist with the state health department, told McClatchy News.

Last season, a total of 186 flu-related deaths were reported, with 145 reported by late February. The season before that, 203 were reported, with 117 reported by the end of February.

“The data show these low levels of flu and (respiratory syncytial virus) are occurring despite similar or higher levels of testing for both illnesses,” the N.C. DHHS said in a news release early last month.

Health officials say “similar trends” have been seen nationally and globally. In the U.S., flu activity has been “lower than usual for this time of year,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The timing and duration of flu seasons vary, but “activity” usually starts increasing around October,and usually peaks between the following December and February, the CDC says. Flu activity, however, can last through May.

Why are numbers low?

Wilson told McClatchy that health officials believe flu activity and deaths have been low partly because of residents practicing what they call the three W’s: wearing a mask, washing their hands often and waiting 6 feet apart.

She said the precautions taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus are also helping slow the spread of the flu and other respiratory illnesses, which don’t spread as easily as COVID-19.

“Altogether, this data tells us the preventative measures we’re taking are working,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state health department, said in the February news release. “Not only are the 3Ws having a big impact on the spread of flu and other respiratory viruses, this data shows us that the spread of COVID-19 would likely be much higher if we weren’t taking these measures.”

Wilson told McClatchy that flu season isn’t over and it’s important to continue taking these precautions and, for those who haven’t, to get the flu shot. The CDC says it’s “more important than ever” to get the flu shot this season to “help reduce the strain on healthcare systems” during the pandemic.

Health officials have stressed the importance of keeping flu activity low this season as North Carolina and the country remain in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, which has threatened to overwhelm hospitals.

Wilson said the situation would be “much worse” in North Carolina if the state was experiencing a normal flu season on top of the pandemic.

“Reducing hospitalizations because of flu and other respiratory illness has been critically important to helping NC’s hospitals manage surges in COVID-19 cases,” Cohen said in the February news release. “We must keep practicing preventative measures such as wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing our hands so we can continue to help save lives.”