A side effect of masking, distancing for COVID-19: Where has the flu gone in NC?

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Masks and other measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have had a welcome side effect — significantly fewer cases of influenza, medical professionals say.

“I think it’s definitely a silver lining to all of this,” said Lauren DiBiase, an epidemiologist at UNC Health.

With COVID-19 case counts climbing heading into flu season back in the fall, public health experts warned of a possible “twindemic” of both diseases simultaneously hitting the population hard, putting additional stress on an already strained health care system.

So far, that hasn’t materialized — and DiBiase credited that in large part to the “three Ws” and the other behavioral changes made to keep the coronavirus in check as much as possible.

“It stands to reason that a lot of the strategies that we have in place to mitigate COVID-19 transmission are really what is impacting flu activity as well as lower levels of activity in other respiratory viruses,” DiBiase said.

Flu cases usually spike at this time each year, with about 1,300 confirmed cases during the second week of February in each of the past three years.

In its most recent influenza report, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported that 328 specimens were sent to the state public health lab over the past week while public health epidemiologists took 3,212 samples.

One tested positive for the flu.

DiBiase said UNC Health has not seen any confirmed cases during this flu season.

The state reported 71 flu deaths from October 2019 through early February 2020.

During the same time frame a year later, there have been just five — including one last week that marked the first since December.

And the CDC says each of the 50 states is at the lowest measurable level of flu spread.

But while those low case counts are mostly a positive sign, there are a couple of reasons for concern.

Those small numbers mean less data for scientists to consider when they determine the composition of the next flu vaccine. And fewer people with the flu also could mean less immunity to it when those behavioral measures stop.

“Because flu is not currently circulating, people aren’t building any type of immunity,” DiBiase said. “And it could be that when some of these strategies that have been put into place are lifted, that we start to see a surge of activity at that point. And it could be even higher than what we would have seen had it played out naturally without some of the strategies in place.”

It raised a question: Would it make sense to continue masking at times even after the end of the pandemic?

Universally, of course not. But at certain times — like during future flu seasons — it might, DiBiase said.

“I think that definitely, the lack of influenza and other respiratory virus activity really has illustrated that evidence-based prevention strategies work … when people are compliant with them,” DiBiase said. “But we also have to be reasonable. Human beings are very social. So things like physical distancing, I don’t think are sustainable. 

“It is certainly possible that in respiratory seasons we’ll see an increase in terms of the public using masks in regular interactions when we have not seen that before in this country,” she added.

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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