Here's why flu numbers are drastically low this season and what it means for next season

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- So far, there have been five flu deaths in North Carolina this season, which runs through May. Last year, there were 186 flu deaths the entire season.

It appears those COVID-19 precautions we're taking (such as masking, social distancing and washing our hands) are helping keep our flu numbers down.

"Normally at this time of year, there'd be a lot of hospital admissions for flu and that would be taking up a large portion of our hospital capacity," said Erica Wilson, Medical Director of Vaccine Preventable and Respiratory Diseases at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health. "Right now, that's very critical to have for COVID patients and so the fact that people are preventing flu, we haven't seen much flu, has been really important."

Wilson said COVID-19 is more transmissible than the flu.

"You also have some immunity in the community against flu--people have had it before," Wilson said. "We have a vaccine that helps prevent spread and so those have all contributed to keeping our numbers low."

The number of flu cases is so low nationally, a CDC official said it's tough to do its annual calculation of how well the flu vaccine is working.

But Dave Sehgal, site head of flu shot maker Seqirus in Holly Springs, said he's not concerned this will impact the effectiveness of the next flu shot.

"The important thing here to also realize or to know is that it's not that we have zero data," Sehgal said. "We do have data about where influenza is and the type of strains that we have. It's just not as much as we've seen before. So if you take that, coupled with the processes that we've used in the past, led by WHO. We, as flu manufacturers, are not concerned about coming up with the right strains in manufacturing the flu vaccine for later this summer and into the fall."

"What they do for making the flu shot each year is that every state in the country sends flu samples to CDC that they analyze to see what strains are circulating and they use that information to look at what they put into the flu shot," Wilson said. "This year, there is less flu than in previous years so they do have fewer samples to look at when they're thinking about the flu shot, but they can still make a flu shot for next year."

Sehgal said demand for their flu shot this year was 20 percent higher than they expected. He said the pandemic may be a reason for the increased demand in flu shots.

"In the context of COVID-19, we really want to avoid anyone having to deal with a co-infection of both flu and COVID-19 at the same time so vaccinations are vitally important," Sehgal said. "If you think of flu, for every patient that gets vaccinated against flu, it prevents them from having to enter the healthcare system for treatment, and that allows precious resources to be devoted or dedicated to COVID-19 patients who desperately need it."

Wilson stressed it's important to keep practicing the 3 Ws, and she said it's not too late to get your flu shot. She said you have about another month or two.
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