Flu infections down 98% in Schenectady County as quiet season ends

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
PHOTOGRAPHER:

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

ALBANY — A few dozen New Yorkers are suffering through the last days of an extraordinarily quiet flu season, with just a handful of new infections still being confirmed per week.

Through May 15, 4,846 positive test results have been recorded, a state database indicates. This compares with an annual average of 101,317 in the preceding five years.

In Schenectady County, confirmed cases this season are down more than 98% from the prior season, from 1,814 infections to just 29 as of mid-May. 

The following list shows the number of flu cases confirmed in local counties in 2020-2021 and shows that number as a percentage of the 2017-2020 average:

  • Albany 31 1.9%
  • Fulton 55 12.5%
  • Montgomery 15 2.9%
  • Rensselaer 54  7.7%
  • Saratoga 50 2.5%
  • Schenectady 29 1.6%
  • Schoharie 23 13.1%

Scientific and non-scientific explanations for this huge decrease center on the precautions already in place for COVID-19: Face masks, hand washing and social distancing are as effective at slowing the spread of flu as they are at thwarting COVID. The two viruses are not the same but have some similarities and cause some similar symptoms.

Another potential explanation for the quiet season: Vaccination.

Over the preceding five flu seasons, an average of 158.2 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed per year to be injected into Americans. As of Feb. 26, 193.8 million doses had been distributed for the 2020-2021 flu season, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported.

The state Department of Health attributes the minimal flu outbreak to all of the above.

“The marked decline of influenza cases for the 2020-2021 season is highly likely to be attributed to New Yorker’s adherence to COVID-19 protocol of wearing masks, proper hygiene, and social distancing,” spokeswoman Erin Silk said. “As always, we encourage people to get vaccinated for both viruses as this is the most effective prevention tool available.”

At Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, the flu was an infrequent diagnosis this past winter, and not because people sick with it were avoiding the hospital for fear of COVID, said Erin Beck, director of infection prevention and control.

“My sense is that the flu didn’t happen this year,” she said.

Two Ellis patients who tested positive for influenza but neither showed symptoms, Beck said.

“The year before, we had close to 100 flu patients, inpatients,” she said. “Public health awareness had to play a part.”

Adult flu deaths are not recorded as such, but are estimated to average 35,000 a year nationwide in the last five years, the federal Centers for Disease Control said.

In New York, pediatric flu deaths have totaled zero in this flu season compared with an average of about eight in the three prior seasons.

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