After a flu season that saw cases and deaths drop to unprecedented levels, Illinois health officials say that the lessons learned from the handling of that virus, as well as the COVID-19 virus, can be used to help ensure that the 2021-22 season is just as uneventful.
During an interview Tuesday, Illinois Department of Public Health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that the social distancing and masking protocols put in place during the COVID pandemic helped to largely eliminate the flu as a viral threat over the winter and into the spring.
“It was our masks that did things against the flu,” she said. “People have this love-hate, heavy on the hate, relationship with masks, but it really has done us a tremendous service and we can’t forget that it (largely) eliminated our flu season, and the large number of deaths that accompany it.”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most-recent flu season saw miniscule numbers, both in the United States and abroad. In all, approximately 700 deaths were attributed to the flu last season, compared to 22,000 and 24,000 in the two previous flu seasons.
Now, with mask mandates and coronavirus restrictions largely eliminated, Ezike says that she doesn’t exactly know what to expect in the fall and winter.
“I haven’t seen or lived through a season (after) the flu season was eradicated, and I don’t know what the rebound season will look like. Nobody does,” she said.
Even still, the director says that there are plenty of lessons that can be learned from the COVID pandemic and applied to the way residents approach the flu. Ezike encouraged Illinois residents to get their flu shots, and also urged residents to wash their hands frequently, to use hand sanitizer, and to stay at home when they are sick.
“We need to take advantage of these life-saving resources,” she said. “We want everybody to get their flu shots once they become available in the fall.”
The question on the minds of many residents will concern whether they will be required, or urged, to wear masks in the fall, whether because of a potential increase in delta-variant COVID cases or in an effort to once again protect residents against the flu.
Ezike says that mask-wearing could become more commonplace, a trend that she would welcome.
“Maybe we will wear masks,” she said. “When you think about kids who don’t want to miss school or people who don’t want to have an illness…why wouldn’t we want to prevent illness? If you’re in a crowded setting where you can’t maintain adequate social distance, you might want to use your masks.
“We want to take advantage of what we’ve learned over this pandemic,” she added.