Experts Say Ohio Flu Cases 'Historically Low' Due To COVID-19 Protocols
Ohio, like much of the United States, is seeing historically low numbers of influenza this year.
Statewide, there have been only 92 flu-related hospitalizations this flu season, compared to about 6,600 reported at this time last year, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health.
Cuyahoga County has reported only five flu hospitalizations, compared to 1,300 in Feb. 2020.
“I’ve never seen it this low, and I’ve been doing this for 11 years,” said Richard Stacklin, data analyst at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
The previous low in Stacklin’s tenure at the board of health was about a decade ago when there were about 120 hospitalizations over an entire flu season, he said.
“It’s not even close,” he said of this year’s projected numbers.
The five flu-related hospitalizations all occurred in 2020, Stacklin added. There have been no flu hospitalizations in the county in 2021, even though February is typically the peak of flu season, he said.
Stacklin and other health experts attribute the low numbers to widespread mask wearing and other COVID-19 precautions.
“The mask should, in theory, reduce the amount of antigens getting into our bodies, and we already have antigens in our bodies from past flu seasons,” Stacklin said.
Washing hands and staying home help prevent the spread of the flu virus in addition to COVID-19, he said. In addition, many children did not attend school in person this year, which typically accounts for the spread of many viruses during cold and flu season.
Although flu declined, COVID-19 spread rapidly this winter. Stacklin said that’s not surprising. Our bodies have built up some immunity to the flu over the years, but not yet to the coronavirus, he said.
“When we have novel viruses, it tends to hit hard, because we just don’t have the protection, the antibodies in our bodies to help fight it at all, so we’re more susceptible,” he said.
COVID-19 also appears to spread more easily than the flu, Stacklin added.
Another reason for the massive dip in flu cases, he said, is the fact that more people got the flu shot this year than ever before. COVID-19 vaccinations, however, have only just begun, he said.
In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 190 million Americans were vaccinated for the flu, the highest number reported in any flu season on record.
More research is needed to determine whether the virus in this year's flu vaccine was a good match for the flu that is circulating, Stacklin said, but that could also be another reason for the decline in flu cases.
Researchers will continue to track flu numbers through the end of April or May.