As Wyoming breezes through another cold winter season, many Wyomingites are in the midst of a battle with their typical yearly illnesses (seasonal allergies, common colds, influenza, etc.).
This year is even harder than most, because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on the world.
COVID-19 has more or less taken front and center in terms of illnesses this year. There are daily updates of those afflicted and countless reminders to wash hands, wear masks, and social distance.
These are all important things to know, but some people feel as though so much focus has been placed on COVID-19, that there isn’t much left over for the other illness that tends to appear during the winter months.
According to the Center for Disease Control, flu season typically begins in October and peaks between December and February, though some activity can last until May. This has led many a commenter on social media to ask: what about the flu?
In Wyoming, especially, flu season hits hard. But according to public health officials, it isn’t as prevalent this year as in years previous.
Hailey Bloom is the Community Prevention Program Manager for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department. She confirmed that flu cases are down, as compared to the last few years. But, she said, that may not last.
“They do seem to be down so far,” Bloom stated. “However, we typically don’t see the major uptick in flu or our major flu season until later in the winter/early spring. So some will remain to be seen as far as what this year’s season will look like in Wyoming.”
Kim Deti, the Wyoming Department of Health Public Information Officer, agrees.
“We are still monitoring influenza in Wyoming and, yes, we are seeing far less influenza so far this season,” she said. “I’m told the volume of influenza in Wyoming is extremely low at this point compared to previous seasons, perhaps as low as 10 percent of what might be typical for early January. We are receiving sporadic reports of both Influenza A and Influenza B strains.”
Influenza A and B are the two most common forms of the flu, and while the symptoms of both strains are similar, the difference lies in who they affect.
Influenza B is exclusively contracted and carried by humans, while Influenza A can be carried (and spread) by humans and animals alike. This means Influenza A is spread more rapidly, and accounts for 75 percent of flu cases each year, while Influenza B accounts for the other 25 percent. Both, however, can be spread by coughing, sneezing, or touching a surface that has the virus on it, and then touching your nose or mouth.
Does that mean COVID-19 precautions (such as hand washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing) helped prevent the flu from spreading as well?
The short answer is yes.
“The precautions intended to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as the change in peoples’ activities, such as travel and socializing, are likely a factor behind lower flu activity,” Deti said.
Kayla Jackson, a local nurse in Casper, said that we won’t truly know what the “flu numbers” look like until later in the season, but that precautions taken for COVID are helping to fight back the flu.
“In Wyoming, historically our peak influenza season tends to occur a little later, typically in February,” she said. “Since COVID did not truly hit Wyoming until after our peak influenza season, we don’t know what to expect for the 2021 influenza season. I am hopeful that people washing their hands more frequently and staying home when sick will decrease the spread of influenza, however, only time will tell.”
In many cases, getting tested for COVID-19 also yields results for the flu.
“The tests run at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, which is part of the Wyoming Department of Health, to determine whether someone is positive for COVID-19, also test for influenza at the same time,” Deti said. “Of course, not all COVID testing is done through our lab, but it’s significant and it gives us good information.”
“However,” Bloom added, “not all tests do both so if someone is negative for COVID-19 and still ill, we recommend they talk with their provider about if they need an influenza test as well.”
Health officials have not “forgotten” about influenza, nor has it just simply disappeared. Cases are down, but officials won’t know the true data of 2020 until later this year.
Precautions taken against COVID-19 have absolutely helped prevent the flu as well, which makes those precautions even more important. The flu hasn’t disappeared, and health officials aren’t “ignoring it.” There just happen to be fewer cases this year, so far, and COVID-19 is the bigger priority at the moment, simply because of its actual impact on those afflicted.
“Influenza should never be overlooked or taken for granted,” Deti emphasized. “This season is not shaping up so far to have as much impact as previous flu seasons, which is a good thing. But the number of deaths we have seen among Wyoming residents related to COVID-19 dwarfs the number of deaths we have seen over the years related to influenza. It’s not a matter of what we are paying attention to right now; it’s what is really happening with illnesses in the state.”
Bloom seconded that, saying, “The flu still exists. We recommend people get vaccinated and take appropriate precautions. However, COVID-19 is far more deadly than the flu.”