Flu cases at an all-time low

Teresa Harrill, Loudon County Health Department director, examines a map showing a minimal number of flu cases nationwide.

The 2020-21 flu season left local health professionals relieved after a year of COVID-19 havoc.

Teresa Harrill, Loudon County Health Department director, said flu cases in the county have been “very, very low this year.”

Loudon County is included in the East Tennessee Region in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data collection, and the region’s reported case percentage is lower than the state percentage, Harrill said.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 47 regional cases through the last week of 2020 were an influenza-like illness, which was 1.9% of patients seen. The state’s average was 2% with 620 patients seen. The CDC’s baseline was 3.1%.

All U.S. states and territories are reporting “minimal” flu cases, Harrill said.

“This has been a bang-up year for COVID, but I really feel like all the precautions we have taken for COVID has resulted in a low flu count because everybody’s wearing a mask, everybody’s washing their hands, we’re not touching surfaces,” she said. “We’re using precautions. I think that’s really made a difference. … I haven’t seen a whole lot about it, and I just know it’s something not even in the county that’s been on the radar because we’ve been so focused on COVID.”

Harrill said 45 of Tennessee’s 95 counties have had one or more positive flu results in recent weeks.

“A lot of times, people are like, ‘Oh, gotta get a flu shot in September, October.’ That’s why we did our big fight flu Tennessee thing back in November,” Harrill said. “And I’ll be honest, we didn’t really have a lot of takers because most everyone had received their flu shot back in October because pharmacies were giving them and all that. I think more people getting the flu shot, more people wearing masks. I hope that continues.”

Dr. Rob Schaerer, Loudon Pediatric Clinic pediatrician, said there hasn’t been much information dispersed regarding the flu because there have been so few cases. He isn’t sure what strains are currently going around.

“We’ve had a lot of kids just with regular respiratory symptoms here in the last few weeks,” he said. “It’s kind of a late peaking respiratory season, but just typical colds, respiratory symptoms, some fevers. Honestly, I haven’t seen a case of the flu in a year, which is crazy.”

Schaerer doesn’t credit masks for preventing the spread of flu, instead pointing to travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19.

“I think probably a lot of it is the lack of international travel,” he said. “There’s just not a lot of people moving around, so we’re not getting a lot of the strain shift around the world. Our vaccine’s based on the strains that were in the U.S. last year, so if there were enough to test, probably the little bit that’s circulating in the U.S. is the same as it was last year. Our shot’s probably doing a good job. And there’s just very little if any international travel, so I think that’s good.”

According to the CDC, there was one pediatric flu death for the 2020-2021 season as opposed to 136 pediatric deaths in 2018-19. Flu hospitalizations have also decreased dramatically to a rate of 0.7 per 100,000.

“This is much lower than the average for this point in the season and lower than rates for any season since routine data collection began in 2005, including the low severity 2011-12 season,” according to the CDC website. “The current rate is one-eighth the rate at this time during the 2011-12 season.”