ALBANY — Flu cases statewide are down over 96 percent this season from the total flu cases recorded through this week last year. Local health officials suspect current coronavirus precautions have contributed to the massive downward trend.
To date, the state Department of Health has recorded 3,548 total cases of the flu since the season kicked off in the first week of October. At this time last year, the state had recorded 106,816 flu cases from the beginning of the season in the first week of October through the same week in February.
The state recorded 157,758 total flu cases for the entirety of the 2019-20 flu season from the first week in October through mid-April.
David Fariello, employee health manager for St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam, on Monday described the current flu season as “odd” due to the low number of cases the agency has observed among patients and staff.
“We’re not really seeing it,” said Fariello. “Last I knew, we had only [admitted] one case of the flu and they also had COVID. They probably came here for COVID and then found out they had the flu; the symptoms are so much alike.”
Fariello pointed to the current low volume of flu cases as a sharp departure from the previous flu season.
“Last year at this time we had a lot of patients with the flu, and we had a lot of staff with the flu,” said Fariello.
Claire Proffitt, supervising public health nurse at Schenectady County Public Health, described similarly low levels of the flu in Schenectady County.
“It’s sort of amazing,” said Proffitt. “Last week in Schenectady it looks like we didn’t have any positive [flu] cases or the week before, which is incredibly different than last year.”
Schenectady County has recorded only 28 total lab confirmed cases of the flu so far this season, according to Proffitt. At this time last year, the county had recorded 1,198 confirmed flu cases.
Both health officials said the low number of flu cases is not from lack of testing, noting that hospital admissions and nursing home residents undergo routine testing for both the flu and the coronavirus. And anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms who visits their primary care doctor will likely be tested for both the coronavirus and the flu.
“Overall, we’re really seeing an increase in testing,” said Proffitt. “It does give us a good picture of what’s going on.”
A push by local and state health officials urging eligible candidates to receive the flu vaccine this season amidst the pandemic also helped boost vaccination rates, said Proffitt.
Although the effectiveness of the flu vaccine cannot be determined until total case counts are tallied after the season ends, Fariello and Proffitt agreed that it is unlikely that the decline in flu cases would be attributed to an especially potent batch this year.
“I think a lot of it is attributable to the masking and social distancing people are doing for COVID,” said Proffitt. “I think all of the things we’re doing for COVID are even way more effective for flu.”
“I think it’s because of all the mask wearing and people being careful and not going out as much,” said Fariello. “The flu is spread pretty much the same as COVID, so people are being more careful.”
Proffitt acknowledged that coronavirus precautions are not perfect at preventing transmission of the illness that is spread primarily through respiratory droplets in the air but said the health safety measures are good at reducing the risk spreading the virus and seem to be even more effective at preventing the spread of the flu.
“We’re really happy about the low number of flu cases,” said Proffitt. “It’s sort of an interesting question scientists are going to be able learn to a lot from looking into why that was the case.”
Despite the relative scarcity of the flu this season, Fariello and Proffitt urged locals not to let their guards down.
“We don’t want people to forget about the flu, it could still be there,” said Fariello. “Flu could be dangerous to people, so if you haven’t gotten the flu shot it’s not too late, there is still plenty of vaccine out there.”
“I always tell people, we may not know how effective it is, but we definitely know it is safe,” said Proffitt of the flu vaccine. “It’s definitely a simple thing to do. Any time of winter, even now, it’s not too late. I definitely recommend people get the flu shot.”