It’s hard to think of anything positive about COVID-19, but a local epidemiologist says the effect it appears to have had on Manitoba’s flu numbers this year can be considered nothing short of a win.
Amazingly, Manitoba has recorded just one case of influenza this flu season, a number so low — and unprecedented — Cynthia Carr, the founder of EPI Research Inc., says technically, we can’t even say we had flu season at all.
“We certainly were concerned about how this was going to go, whether there would be a twin period where we had high circulation of the flu and COVID-19 at the same time,” Carr said this week.
“(But) we didn’t see that at all, you know, like there’s like a 98-per cent reduction in the number of confirmed cases (of influenza).”
By comparison, Manitoba had recorded 1,158 cases of Influenza A, 698 cases of Influenza B, and 29 Manitobans with the flu had died by this time last year, according to provincial health data.
While what we typically call flu season starts around the middle of November and ends in the early Spring, Carr says in reality, flu season actually only starts and ends when five percent or more of lab tests come back positive.
So with one one case of Influenza B reported since September, Manitoba really hasn’t had a flu season this year.
And it’s the same thing across Canada.
The Canadian government has detected the flu just 121 times so far this flu season. There were more than 35,000 cases over the same time period in 2019-2020.
Carr can’t say for sure what has led to the drastic drop in flu cases in Manitoba, but because our vaccination rates didn’t also drastically rise — just under 32 per cent of us rolled up our sleeves for that shot this year — she’s pretty confident it’s connected to the restrictions imposed for COVID-19.
“The only other thing we can say is our behaviour has changed,” she explained.
“It makes sense when we reflect on how viruses are spread and how public health measures really do impact the spread of the disease.”
But one year without the flu doesn’t mean we’ve eradicated the virus — in fact, Carr warns we may actually see a jump in flu cases next fall and into the winter.
That’s because researchers rely on information gathered about the previous year’s dominant flu strains to help predict what should go into the annual flu shot, something that’s going to be difficult following a year that saw so few cases of influenza worldwide.
“I guess we’ll have to watch what happens in the southern hemisphere, in their flu season, to figure out what those dominant strains are and to react in terms of the vaccine,” she said.
“I don’t know, timeline wise, if they can do it that quickly.”
Ultimately, Carr says she’s hopeful our experience working together to slow the spread of COVID-19 will help us keep influenza numbers rates low in the future.
“All these mitigation measures that we’ve adopted to contain COVID-19 … will absolutely help reduce the spread of influenza even after COVID-19, hopefully, is history,” she said.
“I’m hoping that this isn’t thought of as a one and done, that these are behaviours that we continue into other seasonal illnesses, like the next influenza season.
“There’s no reason not to think that if we maintain these approaches — without lockdowns just the public health behaviours — that could go a very long way.”
— With files from Nathaniel Dove