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Public health experts say everyone should get the flu this year, if possible.

USA TODAY

Since COVID-19 went wild last year, seasonal flu has almost disappeared, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the 2019 flu season from September 29 to December 28, the CDC reported more than 65,000 cases of flu across the country. During the same period last year, the agency reported 1,016 cases.

Health experts say the high levels of flu vaccination – combined with social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands – used to stop the spread of the coronavirus – played a huge role in preventing the flutransmission.

The decline came despite a sixfold increase in tests at public health labs, most of which tested for influenza A and B along with the coronavirus.

Clinical laboratory tests were slightly lower in the last quarter of 2020, as doctors orderedfewer flu tests because less of the disease is circulating.

“The Public Health Laboratories test for more monitoring than patient care is therefore a better measure of influenza severity each season than clinical laboratories,” CDC spokeswoman Kate Grusic told USA TODAY.

Although many experts are relieved to see public health measures working against the spread of influenza, they say the numbers speak volumes about the portability of COVID-19.

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“He says he is more contagious and less forgiving of any omissions in these types of preventative measures,” he said. Dr. David Hooper, head of the infection control unit at Massachusetts Hospital.

Hooper said one of the reasons the coronavirus is more portable is that people can shed the coronavirus days before they show any symptoms, if they develop any symptoms at all.

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A model developed by CDC researchers and published Thursday in the JAMA Network Open found that people who showed no symptoms could be responsible for 59% of COVID-19 transmissions, including 35% who had pre-symptoms and 24% who never develop symptoms.

People don’t usually shed the flu virus more than a day before symptoms appear, Hooper said.

Dr. Susan Rehm, vice president of infectious diseases at the Cleveland Clinic, said another reason why the incidence of influenza is low is that most people have some innate immunity from previous vaccinations and infections.

“COVID is a new infection caused by the SARS coronavirus and no one has innate immunity to it,” she said. “So the population is probably more susceptible to it than maybe to the flu.”

That helped Americans get vaccinated against the flu in record numbers last year compared to previous seasons, Rem said.

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As of December 25, more than 192 million doses of influenza vaccine had been distributed, “which is the largest number of doses distributed in the United States in a single flu season.” CDC Grusic said. Influenza vaccine manufacturers predict they will deliver 194 to 198 million doses to the U.S. market by the end of the season, which could last until May, according to the CDC.

Rehm said Americans were particularly motivated to take the flu vaccine last year, as health experts warned that hospitals could be overwhelmed by patients with the flu and COVID-19 in a “twindemic” scenario.

“Many people in the past did not feel that the flu was very severe and therefore did not necessarily feel so motivated to get vaccinated,” she said. “Of course, COVID taught us that respiratory diseases can be extremely severe.”

Although the news of the flu is good, Remus warned that the season is not over.

“The fact that it has been low so far does not prove that it will be low in the future and vaccination is the best thing you can do to prevent the flu,” she said. “It’s not too late to get vaccinated against the flu.”

Follow Adriana Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

Patient health and safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part through a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Health Ethics, Innovation and Competition. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial data.

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