Colorado is more than halfway through the annual flu season, and thanks to the aggressive public health measures taken to combat COVID-19 along with an uptick in vaccinations, the state has seen a staggering drop in serious influenza cases and deaths.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has recorded a total of 23 hospitalizations so far this flu season, which began Sept. 27 and will run through May 22.
By this time last year, 2,430 people had been hospitalized statewide with the flu. Colorado recorded 3,546 total flu hospitalizations across all 64 counties during the 2019-20 season.
Colorado has seen no pediatric flu deaths so far this season, as well as no outbreaks in long-term care facilities, according to state health department data. Three children under the age of 18 died of the flu in Colorado during the 2019-20 flu season.
Only one pediatric flu death has been reported nationwide this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, the CDC reports that the 2019-20 season saw a record-tying high of 188 flu-related deaths in children across the U.S.
Colorado state health officials said they do not track adult flu deaths, but the CDC does. To date in the 2020-21 season, the CDC reports three people overall have died of the flu in Colorado. During the 2019-20 season, Colorado saw 143 total flu deaths, according to CDC data.
“I’ve never seen flu this low,” said Larissa Pisney, medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. “This is certainly unprecedented.”
This season’s number of flu hospitalizations is the lowest Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer at the state health department, has seen in his 30 years of practice. He called it “extraordinary.”
Medical experts said the sharp decrease in the traditional flu can be attributed to multiple factors, including coronavirus precautions and — notably — the fact that kids haven’t been in school for much of the pandemic. That’s often a primary way influenza is spread.
All of the things people are doing to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 — including wearing face coverings, traveling less, physically distancing and washing hands frequently — have led to a decrease in flu, Pisney said.
“People should be excited to see that flu can be prevented with our basic public health approach of wearing masks, getting vaccinated and avoiding gatherings,” France said.
Additionally, more people have gotten their flu shots this season. There has been a 13.5% increase in flu vaccinations this season over last. As of Feb. 15, 124,469 doses of flu vaccine had been administered in Colorado.
Even if someone hasn’t gotten a flu vaccine yet, Pisney said, there’s still time because the virus has a chance for late-season activity.
“The medical community was really concerned about the possibility of the concomitant seasons of flu in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic,” said Amy Duckro, an infectious disease physician at Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “Thank goodness that didn’t come to pass. We were all very relieved. At least, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Although flu and COVID-19 are similar, and transmitted through similar means, Pisney said the two should not be mistaken for the same virus. COVID-19 is more infectious, leads to more hospitalizations and is more deadly. Over the last year in Colorado, more than 23,000 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and nearly 6,000 people have died from the coronavirus.
Even with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, there is no guarantee the novel coronavirus will disappear.
Duckro said medical professionals were not able to predict the current low flu season, and much like the uncertainty of this past year, they will not be able to predict what COVID-19 does in the years to come.
“It’s really hard to predict, but I do suspect COVID will become like the flu,” Pisney said. “We’ll probably see some degree of similar seasonality. I suspect COVID will just be a part of our normal lives and work in the years to come.”
If COVID-19 does become an annual virus, Duckro said the lessons learned during this pandemic will allow people to manage it more effectively in the future.
France said that there is still much we do not know about COVID-19, but he expects booster immunizations will need to be given from time to time, as is done with the flu.
“We’ll learn more as we go forward,” he said.
As Colorado continues to navigate the pandemic, it’s important to continue practicing the necessary safety measures to keep the number of cases of both flu and COVID-19 down, Duckro said. Masking, maintaining physical distance and washing hands are key.
“It’s easy to be a little bit more cavalier about an illness that may be more mild for you, but it just perpetuates the risk and perpetuates the cycle of exposure which, therefore, puts more vulnerable people in our communities at a pretty serious risk,” Duckro said.
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