Flu hospitalizations reach record-low’s, avoiding a ‘twindemic’ for now

Multiple locations, including Staker’s Drugstore on Chillicothe Street, have flu vaccines at their places of business. Photo by Patrick Keck.

SCIOTO — Rates of influenza-associated hospitalizations are down significantly throughout Ohio and the United States, which public health experts say is due to a multitude of reasons.

A few weeks into the 2020-2021 flu season, the Ohio Department of Health has reported 43 hospitalizations as of Dec. 12. Compared to other years, this 10th week of reporting is just under 10 times less than last flu season’s and five times less than this point in 2018-2019.

So far in Scioto County, there has been only one flu hospitalization, having low numbers being more typical at this stage for the county. No hospitalizations were recorded by Dec. 16, 2017, where the county actually recorded its highest amount of hospitalizations in the past five years by the end of the season.

Its 129 hospitalizations that season were greater than Ohio’s rate per 100,000 and in the top 20 of its counties for the measure. ODH reported over 17,000 hospitalizations and four pediatric deaths that year, the department not tracking adult flu-related deaths.

Portsmouth City Health Department Director of Nursing Christine Thomas, the first to receive the Covid Moderna vaccine on Monday, brought the matter to attention during the board’s Dec. 16 meeting, saying it was possible that pandemic precautions were helping in this front.

“I don’t know if that’s because we are all wearing masks, so maybe the flu is not spreading as it would prior to the pandemic,” she said. “It’s been interesting to not have those cases that we would normally would.”

This week, PCHD epidemiologist Molly Davis told the Portsmouth Daily Times similarly that prevention measures have subtracted much of flu caseload.

“This time last year, I had nearly 10 hospitalizations in the county,” she said. “Right now, I just had my first one today.”

Davis said studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed flu numbers drop during the early stages of pandemic.

Originally this was thought to be due to doctors placing more focus on the coronavirus, thus not testing for the flu as frequently. Once the tests for influenza increased however, that thought was quelled as flu numbers remained well-below average, she said.

Both viruses spread through air droplets, yet the flu is much less transmissible and deadly than Covid, which the city and Scioto County Health Departments has over 3,800 total cases and 44 deaths. The similarity in how they spread, with masks mandates and social distancing, have prevented what public health experts call a ‘twindemic.’

The major drivers of the flu’s spread – schools and businesses — Davis said are under orders locally and are now responsible for the low numbers.

“If we were going to stop Covid-19 with mitigation measures alone, we would need a very high level of compliance,” she said, noting the controversies behind these orders which have led to protests. “Whereas with the flu, if we were going to try to stop that outbreak with mitigations, we wouldn’t have to adhere to them as strictly.”

Hospitalizations tend to begin a steady rise during the early and middle portions of winter, peaking previously in February 2020 with just under 1,000 during the week of Feb. 2 through Feb. 8. By the time mid-March rolled along that number was down to 579.

Those numbers continued to drop all the way to four hospitalizations the week of May 10 through May 16. While the 2018-2019 flu season followed this trend, its weekly reports were much higher than last season’s following Gov. Mike DeWine’s closure of non-essential businesses in March.

During that roughly two-month span, 2,380 flu hospitalizations were recorded by ODH. That same frame in 2019 resulted in over 4,130 hospitalizations.

The success of the measures are encouraging, said Davis, but she is unsure whether a reimplementation of them would be supported during the 2021-2022 flu season.

“It would be great,” she said if citizens continued to follow mitigation guidelines following the end of the pandemic. “If they’re no longer being ordered, I’m not sure we would have much luck in getting people to comply with that.”

The abilities of the ODH and DeWine to implement Covid orders have already been challenged by the Ohio General Assembly, whose passage of Senate Bill 311 in November has been vetoed by the governor.

The bill would have kept ODH from issuing mandatory quarantine orders for those that have not been directly exposed or tested positive to the coronavirus and received supporting votes from Scioto County’s legislators, Sen. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, and Rep. Brian Baldridge, R-Winchester.

ODH recommends the flu vaccines to all people and stresses the importance of pregnant women, children under the age of five, adults 65 and older, those with chronic medical conditions, and long-term care facility residents since they are at higher risk of contracting serious complications.

Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at pkeck@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.