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VERIFY: Yes, this year's flu activity is far below average

Flu activity this season is at the lowest it's been in years. Experts think COVID-19 mitigation efforts are contributing to this.

Flu activity is much lower this season than in previous years. In fact, many are starting to point out that flu activity is far below the usual to an unprecedented extent. And plenty others are looking for reasons to explain this drop in flu activity.

THE QUESTION

Are flu cases far below the usual for the current flu season?

WHY WE ARE VERIFYING

As some people learn that this year’s flu rates are down, they’ve turned to conspiracy theories to explain it. Numerous posts have hinted at or claimed that the flu isn’t being tested for or some other data manipulation is at play.

THE ANSWER

Yes. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's statistics show very low numbers for the 2020-2021 flu season. A CDC spokesperson said, “Flu activity is extremely low this flu season, with activity for the season as a whole the lowest in 25 years.”

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WHAT WE FOUND

The weekly CDC flu surveillance report shows that more than 650,000 specimens have been tested for the flu this season and only 1,499 have come back positive for a positivity rate of 0.2%. That’s the lowest activity for a season in 25 years, according to a CDC spokesperson’s email.

There have been just 183 hospitalizations for the flu between October 1, 2020 and February 20, 2021 for a rate of 0.6 hospitalizations per 100,000. The CDC spokesperson explained, “This is much lower than 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. During the 2011-12 season, the rate was 2.2 times higher at this time in the season.”

So yes, it’s definitely true the flu is spreading at much lower rates so far this year than years prior. But what’s the reason for that? Health experts aren’t pinning down an exact reason just yet, but everyone has a good idea of what’s contributing to it.

“It is likely that [community mitigation] measures taken to slow or prevent spread of SARS-CoV-2 have had an impact on the spread of other pathogens, including influenza,” the CDC spokesperson said.

The flu trends in other countries seem to support that notion. The CDC published a report last September that noted flu activity was low in the United States and globally. Importantly, flu activity was low in southern hemisphere countries during their flu season that takes place during our summer months.

However, there are multiple measures for combating COVID-19, plus an increase in flu vaccinations, that could play a role and are happening simultaneously. “Measures, including extensive reductions in global travel, teleworking, school closures, social distancing, and face mask use may have played a role,” the CDC spokesperson said. “Flu vaccine and existing immunity could also have played a role. It is difficult to tease out which measure(s) was/were important for influenza prevention since measures were often implemented simultaneously.”

Flu vaccinations stand out as a contributing factor because the CDC has noted in its weekly vaccination distribution dashboard that the United States had already surpassed its highest number of flu vaccines doses distributed in a single season by January 15. At more than 193 million doses, about 20 million more vaccines have been distributed this year than last year and last year was higher than in years prior.

While the flu numbers have been good so far this year, there’s no guarantee the trend will continue. “Flu activity is unpredictable, and it may increase in the coming months. An annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against flu and its potentially serious complications,” the CDC spokesperson said.

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