With COVID-19 still dominating headlines, influenza (flu) has been conspicuous in its absence, especially during what is typically peak flu season. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks influenza (flu) and pneumonia deaths weekly through the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Mortality Reporting System.
It also creates a preliminary estimate of the burden of seasonal flu, based on crude rates of lab-confirmed flu hospitalizations. Such estimates are intended to give an idea of how many people have been sick from or died from the flu in any given season â€” that is, except for 2020.
â€œApril 4, 2020, was the last week in-season preliminary burden estimates were provided,â€� the CDC wrote on its 2019-2020 U.S. flu season webpage.1 The reason the estimates stopped in April is because flu cases plummeted so low that theyâ€™re hardly worth tracking. In an update posted December 3, 2020, the CDC stated:2
â€œThe model used to generate influenza in-season preliminary burden estimates uses current season flu hospitalization data. Reported flu hospitalizations are too low at this time to generate an estimate.â€�
They also added, â€œThe number of hospitalizations estimated so far this season is lower than end-of-season total hospitalization estimates for any season since CDC began making these estimates.â€�3
Flu Deaths Plummet While COVID Cases Rise
In late summer 2020, warnings surfaced that there might soon be a â€œtwin-demicâ€� of flu and COVID-19 that would decimate the globe.4 So far, this hasnâ€™t panned out. In the U.S., the CDC reported that the percentage of respiratory specimens submitted for influenza testing that test positive decreased from greater than 20% to 2.3% since the start of the pandemic.
As of September 18, 2020, they noted that positive influenza tests have â€œremained at historically low interseasonal levels (0.2% versus 1 to 2%).â€�5 Further, from September 29, 2019-February 29, 2020 to March 1-May 16, 2020, the CDC noted a 98% decrease in influenza activity.6
Similar drops have been observed worldwide, including in the Southern Hemisphere countries of Australia, Chile and Southern Africa, which often serve as sentinels for influenza activity in the U.S.
All three areas had very low influenza activity during June to August 2020, which is their peak flu season. From April to July 2020, only 33 influenza positive test results were detected in Australia; 12 in Chile; and six in South Africa, for a total of 51 positive tests. For comparison, during April to July in 2017 to 2019, 24,512 specimens tested positive for influenza.7
It was initially thought that the steep drops in influenza activity were due to decreased testing, since people with respiratory symptoms likely received COVID-19 tests instead. However, according to the CDC, public health officials have made a concerted effort to test for flu, and even though â€œadequate numbersâ€� have been tested, little to no flu virus has been detected.
In Australia, meanwhile, they tested â€œmarkedly more specimens for influenzaâ€� this season than usual, yet still detected very few cases of flu.8 So what happened to the flu?
CDC Tracking Combines COVID, Flu and Pneumonia Deaths
The â€œCOVIDâ€� deaths the CDC has been reporting are actually a combination of pneumonia, flu and COVID-deaths, under a new category listed as “PIC” (pneumonia, Influenza, COVID).
Their COVIDView webpage, which provides a weekly surveillance summary of U.S. COVID-19 activity, states that levels of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and â€œassociated illnessesâ€� have been increasing since September 2020, while the percentage of deaths due to pneumonia, flu and COVID-19 has been on the rise since October.9
As noted by professor William M. Briggs, a statistical consultant and policy adviser at the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, in the video above, â€œCDC, up until about July 2020, counted flu and pneumonia deaths separately, been doing this forever, then just mysteriously stopped â€¦ Itâ€™s become very difficult to tell the difference between these,â€� referring to the combined tracking of deaths from â€œPIC.â€� Theyâ€™re even using PIC to state that cases are above the epidemic threshold:10
“Based on death certificate data, the percentage of deaths attributed to PIC for week 49 was 14.3% and remains above the epidemic threshold.
The weekly percentages of deaths due to PIC increased for seven weeks from early October through mid-November and are expected to increase for the most recent weeks as additional data are reported. Hospitalization rates for the most recent week are also expected to increase as additional data are reported.”
Did Masks and Lockdowns Stop the Spread of Flu?
It could appear that flu hasnâ€™t just vanished into thin air but rather cases could be being mistaken for COVID-19 â€” or even intentionally mislabeled as such. Another theory centers on viral interference, which is the phenomenon in which a cell infected by a virus becomes resistant to other viruses;11 basically, cells are rarely infected with more than one virus, so COVID-19 could be winning out over influenza.
However, with COVID-19 being such a novel virus, with reportedly only a minority of the population having been exposed, there should still be plenty of room for influenza to spread.12
According to the CDC, however, flu cases began to decline in response to â€œwidespread adoption of community mitigation measures to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2.â€� In other words, they believe that flu cases have plummeted because of the widespread adoption of mask wearing, social distancing and lockdowns.
In their MMWR weekly report released September 18, 2020, they state, â€œIn the United States, influenza virus circulation declined sharply within 2 weeks of the COVID-19 emergency declaration and widespread implementation of community mitigation measures, including school closures, social distancing and mask wearing, although the exact timing varied by location.â€�13
But here again this leaves many unanswered questions, the primary one being why, if the COVID-19 mitigation efforts are so effective against the spread of flu, are COVID cases still rising? The two viruses are spread basically the same way. As Irish science journalist Peter Andrews put it in RT:14
â€œThe scientific establishment is quickly forming ranks behind the theory that the flu has gone away because of Covid restrictions â€” especially masks, social distancing and lockdowns.
They â€˜overwhelmingly agreeâ€™ that this is so; their certainty is remarkable at this early stage. But why would these measures have worked so unintentionally well for flu, which has been with us for millennia, but Covid cases are still skyrocketing? Do masks let one particle through and stop another?
The proponents of this theory have an explanation. They claim that people with Covid are more contagious than those with flu. It has a longer â€˜incubation periodâ€™ than flu does, and its â€˜R rateâ€™ is three times higher than that of flu. But even if all of these estimates were right, there is still the unanswered question of why flu would have been eradicated so completely.â€�
Problems With Lockdowns
When asked whether he believes lockdowns were responsible for getting rid of the flu, Briggs said in the video, â€œNo, absolutely not. Lockdowns only help spread the flu â€¦ Locking down the healthy, quarantining the healthy, is asinine.â€� Briggs believes that lockdowns would only increase flu infection because the virus spreads more easily when people spend more time indoors, in close quarters with others, in dry, indoor air.
He also pointed to lockdown failures, like the one that occurred in New York City. The mortality rate from COVID-19 reached beyond 50 deaths per million per day in April 2020, despite a full lockdown being implemented in March. The state ordered nursing homes to accept COVID-19 positive patients from hospitals until May 10, when the order was reversed, but by then the virus was already ravaging nursing homesâ€™ elderly residents â€” the most vulnerable.
â€œBy facilitating the transmission of the virus from hospitals to nursing homes, the rate of spread within the elderly population was maximized, and any possible benefit from lockdown of the young and healthy population was rendered moot,â€� Dr. Gilbert Berdine, an associate professor of medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, explained.15
Social Distancing and Masks to Stay to Fight Flu?
The CDC is already using the mysteriously low number of flu cases this season as an impetus to suggest that masks, school closures and social distancing could become the new normal every fall to combat the upcoming flu season:
â€œIf extensive community mitigation measures continue throughout the fall, influenza activity in the United States might remain low and the season might be blunted or delayed. In the future, some of these community mitigation measures could be implemented during influenza epidemics to reduce transmission, particularly in populations at highest risk for developing severe disease or complications.â€�16
Meanwhile, even while stating that flu cases are next to nonexistent this season, and that the COVID-19 mitigation measures already in place are likely effective at curbing its spread â€” they still want you to get your flu shot, â€œespecially this seasonâ€�:17
â€œGiven the novelty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of continued community mitigation measures, it is important to plan for seasonal influenza circulation in the United States this fall and winter. Influenza vaccination of all persons aged â‰¥6 months remains the best method for influenza prevention and is especially important this season when SARS-CoV-2 and influenza virus might cocirculate.â€�
If you want to be proactive, itâ€™s worth remembering that flu shots are controversial, and your chances of getting influenza after vaccination are still greater than 50/50 in any given year.
According to CDC data, for example, the 2017-2018 seasonal influenza vaccine’s effectiveness against “influenza A and influenza B virus infection associated with medically attended acute respiratory illness” was just 36%.18 Meanwhile, we already know that vitamin D optimization is a good idea, not only for COVID-19 but also for influenza.