While COVID-19 has been the major health concern for the last several months, the flu, or influenza, has also been making its yearly rounds. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were between 39,000,000 – 56,000,000 flu illnesses this past flu season in America, from October 2019 to April 2020. Of those, between 410,000 - 740,000 people had to be hospitalized and 24,000-62,000 died from the illness. The CDC said it derived its estimates using mathematical models based on laboratory observations, which better depict the full number of cases in the U.S. because influenza is not a reportable disease in “most areas” of the country.

These estimates would potentially rank the 2019-2020 flu season as the fourth highest since 2010. With most people practicing social distancing and increased sanitation due to COVID-19, one might expect to have seen a lower rate of the flu. However, Dr. David Pelini with Marshall Medical South said the above-average flu rate may be due, in part, to heightened awareness and increased testing during the pandemic.

“You would think with all the social distancing and quarantining and all the other stuff that we’ve been doing that it would be [lower],” he said. “Maybe it’s so different than other years because we’re so much more sensitized to it [COVID-19] this year.”

Pelini said many physicians have been testing for both the flu and coronavirus for patients exhibiting respiratory symptoms when in past years they may have treated for the flu without testing.

“We’ve taken the approach of testing everybody for both,” he said. “In general, we’re not missing any cases.”

Pelini said it’s possible some cases of COVID-19 nationwide were misdiagnosed as the flu, or vice versa, especially when testing was just beginning in America.

“Some of the early testing hasn’t been fully researched, so we don’t know if there’s been a little crisscrossed,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out.”

Though the CDC has stopped estimating cases of the flu for the season, Pelini said his office is still seeing up to 10 cases of the illness per day. However, he said the hospital has yet to see any spike in COVID-19 cases, even as people return to work after the lockdown. 

Even as a trained physician, Pelini acknowledged how difficult it can be to keep up with the frequently changing information regarding the coronavirus. Still, he encouraged everyone to continue practicing social distancing and to wear a mask when around others to help keep all respiratory illnesses down, be it the flu or COVID-19. Pelini said we can hope to see a tapering off of both illnesses as the weather warms, but the potential for a fall season resurgence is a likely possibility.

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