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The Medical Minute: Flu cases down, but keep your guard up

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First, the good news – there are far fewer cases of influenza so far this season.

Labs at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center and Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center all report zero confirmed cases of influenza.

“Historically, we don’t see a real rise in Pennsylvania cases until the end of January into early February, but by now, the number of hospitalizations is usually well into the hundreds and the number of deaths is in double digits,” said Allison Polinski, director, quality and patient safety at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center.

For the current flu season, there have been just 21 influenza-related hospitalizations and nine deaths statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Looking back at last flu season In Pennsylvania, there were 8,000 cases of influenza reported between Dec. 30, 2019 and Jan. 5, 2020, versus just 125 cases reported from Jan. 4 to Jan. 10 this year.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 65,000 cases of influenza between Sept. 29 and Dec. 28, 2019 and just 1,016 cases during the same period at the end of 2020.

The reason for the drop? We’re finally doing what infectious disease experts ask us to do every year: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay home when you’re sick. Of course, this year many people are wearing masks and social distancing as well.

“The days when you’d suck it up and go to work sick or give your child a Tylenol and send them to school are over,” said Denise Cutting, manager of infection prevention at Holy Spirit Medical Center. “People are much more aware of how viruses spread because of the pandemic, and protecting other people is coming to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Now, the caution: Be vigilant

“If you get a negative COVID test but you’re still feeling sick, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a virus that is contagious,” Polinski said. “There are always several viruses circulating each season, and any one of them could have serious consequences for you or someone else, especially for those who are immunocompromised.”

Also, it’s possible to catch the flu before, during and after a COVID-19 infection. Some but not all COVID-19 tests also check for influenza.

Cutting and Polinski have little patience for the notion that COVID-19 is just another name for this year’s flu. Both are contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses.

“And if you ask anyone who has cared for a COVID patient in the hospital, they will tell you it is definitely not the same as the flu,” Cutting said.

How do you know if you should seek medical care if you think you have the flu?

If you’re having rapid heart rate, shortness of breath or fever that won’t go away, call your health care provider, Polinski said.

Anti-viral drugs can help shorten the flu if started early enough, but they do not shorten the time you are contagious – which is one day before and eight days after you get the flu, Cutting said. Clean high-touch areas, such as doorknobs, phones and light switches, to prevent transmission to others in your home.

It’s not too late to get a flu shot if you haven’t yet, Polinski said.

“It’s important to get the flu shot every year. Vaccines are one of the best ways we have to limit the spread of disease,” she said. “And keep washing your hands and wearing your mask – so we can all get through this together.”

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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