SEATTLE — The number of deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering, but there is one statistic that stands out: since coronavirus took hold in Washington, the number of deaths attributed to the common flu is zero.
With businesses closed, streets vacant, restaurants empty — coronavirus has taken a costly toll on our communities. But one positive side effect of all that staying home is that influenza has been essentially wiped out this season.
"This year really has been a historic low for influenza," said UW Medicine infectious disease specialist Dr. Nandita Mani.
It is the first time in recorded history, at least 100 years, there have been zero seasonal flu deaths in Washington. Last season, 114 deaths from flu were reported in the state.
"My biggest takeaway from all this is that many of the interventions we're doing right now — masks, social distancing, staying home when you're sick — those are really effective at preventing the spread of infections," Mani said.
Perhaps the biggest reason no one has died from the flu is closed schools. Kids tend to be among the biggest spreaders of the flu, and with schools closed there was virtually no exposure.
Clearly, schools can't remain closed forever, but Mani said lessons from the pandemic are clear if we want to keep the flu at bay for future seasons.
"Prior to this many of us would go to work when we were feeling a little bit under the weather or we'd see our family members. It's a really good reminder that if you stay home when you're sick you can't spread infections," Mani said.
As Washingtonians eagerly begin another attempt at the reopening, health officials remind us humans have short memories.
Nationally, 34,000 people died from the flu in 2019. That seemed astronomical — until coronavirus hit. So far, more than 540,000 people nationwide have died of COVID-19. In Washington, 5,218 people have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
While the number of cases of influenza are down, there have been some cases — which will be helpful in developing next season's flu shot, Mani said.
“Next year's flu vaccine would likely be developed by using knowledge of prior strains that have circulated in prior seasons of influenza. To be clear, there have been a small number of influenza cases we have seen this season," Mani said. "Those strains could be helped to develop vaccines for the next season, as well."
Moving forward, Mani said we may want to make some of our new habits more permanent.
"Next year, I certainly will be wearing a mask if I am using public transportation or in a congregate setting because I know that prevents the spread of a respiratory viral infection."
Flu season typically runs through the end of May, so there is still ample opportunity to get sick. Mani recommended getting a flu shot every year and practicing reasonable protocols whenever necessary.