Houston Methodist Expert Notes COVID-19 Precautions Lead To Historic Drop In Flu Cases

By: Lisa Merkl
| Published 02/03/2021

S. Wesley Long, M.D., Ph.D., is the medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist
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HOUSTON, TX -- Houston, we’re doing something right. And, it seems, so is the rest of America. A silver lining is emerging amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Influenza numbers are way down – 98 percent down, according to the CDC. Locally, during flu season last year, Houston Methodist’s system of eight hospitals saw 250 to 450 flu cases per week. This year? The hospital system has seen only 2 to 5 flu cases per week so far. The numbers tell a striking story. Handwashing, masking and social distancing work.

That also translates to a possible 20,000 lives saved and potentially keeping nearly 400,000 hospital beds open, according to CDC estimates of deaths and hospitalizations for last year’s flu season. This is especially important now, given the unprecedented strain COVID-19 has put on hospitals across the country.

“Influenza A and B are down this year across the United States in a really historic way,” said S. Wesley Long, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. “This was also seen in the southern hemisphere flu season that precedes and is a big influence on ours.”

And it’s not just the flu. Long said there have been very low rates of RSV, short for respiratory syncytial virus, which is common in children, as well as a very low rate of rhinovirus and enterovirus – the common cold viruses – during the March and April lockdown last year. He noted the drop in all of our respiratory viruses was very rapid when the lockdown was initiated in March 2020, and rhinovirus and enterovirus numbers only began to slowly increase when restrictions started to ease in April and May.

“We were on the upswing for a couple of respiratory viruses in early 2020,” Long said. “But they dropped to nothing extremely quickly when the rodeo was canceled and we went on lockdown in Houston.”

Influenza and RSV, however, have remained very low, even into the usual respiratory virus season that began in the fall. This could be due to the October and more recent surges in COVID-19 cases prompting people to double down their precautionary efforts of good hand hygiene, wearing masks, social distancing and getting their flu shots in anticipation of a feared “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19, a prediction that, thankfully, has not happened.

“It shows the power of the intervention measures brought about by COVID-19, coupled with lockdowns, really do work. It’s really striking that when we started to ease up on stay-at-home orders, we saw some of them, like rhinovirus and enterovirus, slowly come back,” Long said. “I can’t stress enough the overriding factor reducing the spread of respiratory viruses is most likely the precautions many individuals are now accustomed to taking of masking, handwashing and social distancing, as well as an increase in people getting the flu vaccination. I think this gives us hope that we can get COVID-19 under control as we roll out vaccines to pair with these public health interventions.”


For more information, Houston Methodist’s flu tracker website shows real-time statistics on the flu and other respiratory viruses and can be found at https://flu.houstonmethodist.org/.

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