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'It's a big deal,' Only a handful of flu cases reported statewide

Only four cases have been reported to the state health department since the start of the flu season in October.

Mask wearing and social distancing have been the primary mitigation strategies to curb COVID-19 spread, but doctors now say it's likely that those methods also helped stave off flu cases.

As of Jan. 23, there were four flu cases reported to Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services. Around the same time last year, there were 388 reported cases. 

Nationwide flu activity is minimal, according to the CDC's flu map.

Spectrum Health and Mercy Health say they are actually testing for the flu more often than usual in their emergency departments as they test for multiple respiratory illnesses, including COVID.

"So, we're looking for it, and we're just not seeing it," said Dr. Andrew Jameson, division chief of Infectious Diseases at Mercy Health.

Mercy Health has seen one positive case and Spectrum Health has had zero. Both health systems say their totals have been in the hundreds in years past. 

"It's mind boggling actually," Jameson said. 

Jameson said masks and social distancing are more effective in preventing flu spread as it's a droplet borne virus. 

"It is much more effective at stopping the influenza virus than it is COVID, which is awesome," Jameson said. 

"We are just seeing a big drop in the overall morbidity associated with respiratory viruses that were not COVID because of this masking. It's a big deal."

Joshua Kooistra, DO, Spectrum Health West Michigan chief medical officer, said high flu activity could have further strained the health system during COVID-19 surges. 

Spectrum Health expanded its ICU capacity by 30% just to meet the need of COVID-19 inpatients late last year. 

"If you would have taken influenza and put those admissions on top of that, we would have been in even bigger trouble than what we were managing back in November and December," Kooistra said. 

In addition to masking and social distancing, Kooistra said travel restrictions and the flu vaccine are likely also contributing to the near nonexistent flu season. 

Flu vaccinations are up by nearly 8% in the state. MDHHS had set a goal of vaccinating 4 million people to prevent flu outbreaks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that goal has been over 75% realized. 

Kooistra said it seems to have been a more effective year for the flu vaccine. 

"We're very thankful for that and then still would encourage people if they haven't gotten the influenza shot to consider getting it this year," Kooistra said Tuesday. "I don't think that we're entirely out of the woods yet."

It's advised that people do not receive the flu vaccine 14 days before or after their COVID-19 vaccine. So, Jameson advises not getting it if you're expecting to register for the coronavirus vaccine within that time frame. 

Jameson said he's hopeful masking will now be a tool used in future flu seasons, as well. 

"You know, I do expect to see our attitude shift, and I'm actually kind of optimistic about it," he said. "If we have people that are kind of engaged in helping protect each other, and that's a shift we make as a society, I think it's for the positive."

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