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Fewer people are dying from the flu this fall, but the reason is tragic

Published Oct 26th, 2020 6:36PM EDT
Coronavirus vs. Flu
Image: vladimirhodac/Adobe

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  • Health officials and doctors have observed a drop in flu deaths early in the flu season, and the novel coronavirus might be the explanation.
  • Some think that COVID-19 may have already killed the people who would be most vulnerable to the flu, and that’s why the number of flu deaths is lower than expected.
  • The same protective measures that can prevent coronavirus infection can also stop the flu and other respiratory illnesses: Face masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing.

Health experts warned us all summer that it was imperative for the US to lower COVID-19 transmission before winter and fall arrived. They worried that a coronavirus-flu convergence wouldn’t just kill more people, but could overcrowd hospitals, and some health systems could collapse under the extra burden.

Well, fall has arrived, bringing a surge of coronavirus cases in the US and Europe. After weeks of steady increases, America reached the third peak of its COVID-19 epidemic on Friday, its highest yet with over 80,000 cases. There’s no sign that the increase in cases will stop anytime soon. But the flu epidemic isn’t where experts expected it to be. Doctors in the US and UK have noted a drop in flu deaths so far this season. Unfortunately, the explanation is tragic: COVID-19 may have already killed the people who would have been most at risk of dying due to flu complications.

The interpretation comes from The New York Post, which says the flu deaths are down two-thirds from the five-year average. Federal estimates show no flu deaths for the week ending October 17th, compared to the average of 17 fatalities for the period. The state and the city recorded no flu deaths, matching the five-year average for each. The flu season is just a few weeks old, and that could partly explain the problem.

The UK registered 1,132 flu and pneumonia deaths last month, 28% lower than the five-year monthly average of around 1,500. The UK’s Office for National Statistics thinks that the drop is because the people who would have been vulnerable to the flu have already died this spring from COVID-19.

But not everyone thinks that take is accurate. Private British statistician Kevin McConway told The Post that the same safety guidelines for preventing the transmission of COVID-19 could reduce the spread of other respiratory illnesses, including the flu and pneumonia.

The report notes that pneumonia deaths have dropped in the US for the week of October 17th by 60%. The five-year average is at 3,106 deaths for the week, but only 1,251 people died of pneumonia during the period.

“Wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing, and all the other measures put in place to slow the Coronavirus should also slow the flu and other viruses,” state health department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond told The Post.

Statistics for the southern hemisphere, which experienced its flu season during the summer, further indicates that the protective measures that various nations imposed this year can explain the unexpected drop in flu cases. The flu epidemic was almost absent south of the Equator, surprising health experts. It’s too early to say whether the flu epidemic north of the Equator will behave similarly.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.