COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) — The number of people hospitalized with seasonal influenza this year in South Carolina is down by thousands, with deaths only a fraction of what they’ve been in previous seasons.
“I would say we have done very well,” said Jonathan Knoche, a medical consultant in the division of immunization and acute disease epidemiology with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. “Any death that happens is a shame and a tragedy, but if I had to look at previous years, I’d say there is a reason to be thankful for the number of hospitalizations and deaths this year compared to what normally happens.”
With a spike of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this winter, the health agency gave a renewed push for seasonal flu vaccinations while continuing to emphasize the need for physical distancing and mask wearing to prevent what it referred to as a “dual pandemic.”
Those efforts, it appears, have had a drastic impact in the number of seasonal flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths this year.
There have been 107 lab-confirmed influenza cases this season, according to DHEC’s weekly flu monitoring for the week of March 7, the most recent data available. The were 5,811 reported cases by the same time in the 2019-20 season, with a five-season average of 3,068 cases.
There have been 15 people who have had both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
While flu cases must be reported to DHEC, rapid testing is not included in case counts, meaning that it is possible for more people to be listed as hospitalized for the flu than those who have been diagnosed with it. The real number of flu cases is expected to be higher than what is reported to the state, since many people with the flu never visit a medical professional, aren’t tested or are given a rapid test.
There have been 122 seasonal flu-related hospitalizations this year. Last year, there were 2,697. The five-season average has been 2,331 hospitalizations a season.
There have been 15 flu deaths this year, compared to 99 at the same time last year and a five-season average of 107 deaths.
Weekly flu activity is usually ranked as “high” for about a dozen weeks each season. For the 2020-21 season, it has peaked at a “low” rating, which lasted for three weeks. The flu season is usually the most active from October through March.
Knoche said the agency looked to countries in the southern hemisphere, such as Australia, to see what the flu’s impact has been like. DHEC hoped numbers would be low, but didn’t know what to expect.
“We are very glad and relieved that this flu season so far has turned out to be a very mild one,” Knoche said.
DHEC was concerned about what Knoche referred to as “superinfections,” which could happen if a patient developed pneumonia from the seasonal flu and also had COVID-19.
Hospital occupancy — and what would happen if a rush of medical personnel got sick at once — was also a concern.
Despite the push from DHEC, fewer people were vaccinated against the seasonal flu this year than in previous ones. About 1.4 million were vaccinated in the 2019-20 season. That dropped to about 1.2 million this season.
This year’s low flu numbers does not mean that the virus is close to being eradicated, however. The virus mutates every year, which is why flu shots are needed annually. The annual vaccines are based off which strains emerge from Australia, which experiences winter before the northern hemisphere does.
Knoche said he doesn’t know if people will continue to wear face masks during the flu season after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, but does not expect the majority of people in the U.S. to continue to wear one.