After a historic flu season last year, Chicago public health officials say that they are hopeful that the steps residents take to protect themselves from COVID-19 can continue to be effective in keeping the seasonal virus at bay for another year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were just 2,038 cases of the flu reported by public health and clinical labs between Sept. 2020 and April 2021, far fewer than the approximately 38 million cases that were reported in the previous year.
Public health experts attributed the massive downturn in cases to increased emphasis on handwashing, increased social distancing and mask-wearing, all of which were brought about by the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said that while she is hopeful those mitigation practices will continue this year, she is still nervous about the coming flu season, especially with the delta variant still causing elevated case levels in the city and the state of Illinois.
Get Chicago local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Chicago newsletters.
“I would be foolish to not be worried at all about fall and winter,” she said. “If those (flu cases) come along with at least some level of COVID on top of it, and if we see a pattern where the fall and winter becomes not just cold and flu season, but sort of cold, flu and COVID season, with it becoming more of a regular respiratory virus, then yeah I am a little concerned.”
Arwady says that handwashing, social distancing and masking are all key to combating the flu, and also encouraged all eligible residents to get flu vaccines.
She says that if the city sees increasing strain on health care systems because of a combination of flu and COVID cases, further mitigations, including extended mask mandates, could potentially be on the table.
“Our goal…is to stay open and to stay careful. If we have any signs that COVID or COVID and flu together are seriously threatening our health care system, or if we had a new variant come in…we could have significant trouble,” she said. “I hope we won’t need to do more aggressive things, but we will if we start to threaten our health care system.”
According to data from the CDC, last year’s flu season was historically tame. Just 0.2% of respiratory test specimens tested by US clinical laboratories returned positive test results for the virus. By comparison, in previous years the average positivity rate on those tests fell between 26.2% and 30.3%.
In the 2020-21 flu season, there was just one reported pediatric flu death in the United States, compared to 195 in the previous year.