As cases of COVID-19 continue to climb across the country, cases of another infectious disease are proving hard to find.
“It’s amazing, I mean it’s really unprecedented,” said University of Regina Biology Associate Professor Andrew Cameron.
“This is one note of really good news that I think we all need.”
According to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health, no cases of influenza have been confirmed in the province since the 2020-2021 flu season began.
Ministry data shows that about a year ago, as of Jan. 18, 2020, 1,154 cases of influenza and 10 resulting deaths had been confirmed.
This year’s trend comes despite the ministry estimating that influenza vaccinations through Dec. 31, 2020 are actually down compared to the same period in 2019.
Cameron said that with the pandemic already pushing health-care systems to capacity, the value of having a quiet flu season cannot be overstated.
“Vaccination rates are typically around 30 per cent. We don’t appreciate just how significant the impact of the flu is. It does cause significant mortality and burden on health care each year. And it mostly impacts the elderly,” he said.
Influenza and COVID-19: similar symptoms, vastly different consequences
As for why the flu hasn’t made a name for itself this season, health experts say we can thank the measures put in place to prevent the more contagious and deadly coronavirus from spreading.
“If your car is weather-proofed to be good at -40, you know it’s going to be good at -20,” University of Saskatchewan Biomedical Professor Kyle Andersen explained.
Andersen said influenza migrates between hemispheres following cooler weather, and that travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic likely also helped prevent flu viruses from spreading.
“There was less flu to start off in places like Asia, South America and Australia because they’ve been doing the same things that we have for COVID-19,” he said.
Andersen thinks as long as strict health measures stick around, the trend of low influenza numbers could continue into the next flu season.
“Flu is always sort of reintroduced by bird populations and pigs and things like that. So we’ll never really be able to get rid of it,” he said. “But lowering the overall number of people sick with the flu on Earth — that is going to have a long term effect.”
Both Cameron and Andersen suggest good physical distancing and hygiene protocols will still be paramount to ensuring influenza and COVD-19 don’t overload Saskatchewan’s health-care system through 2021 and beyond.
COVID-19 measures helping with flu season
“I think we’re going to reach a point where we are going to do away with restrictions and go back to things, policy-wise, as normal. But hopefully, we’ll be able to say things like, ‘you know what, take a sick day.’ Taking sick days is important because that isn’t just good for you, but it’s good for other people. Or, [in the case of] illness, people might be more willing to wear a mask when they go out in public.”
Cameron added that even with a significant portion of the population vaccinated for COVID-19, the combination of the novel disease and the seasonal flu could still overwhelm health-care resources in a worst-case scenario.
“The flu could come back with a vengeance. Next year could be terrible,” said Cameron. “It could be that we get what we feared would happen this year — that we get the double whammy.”
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