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Pandemic Leads To Historic Low Flu Activity In Conn., Health Leaders Work To Keep It That Way

Stacy Fields, a registered nurse with Yale New Haven Health and health chair at the Greater New Haven NAACP, talks to people in the community about getting a flu vaccine through Yale's School of Medicine's Community Health Care Van, Fri., Dec. 11, 2020.
Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Stacy Fields, a registered nurse with Yale New Haven Health and health chair at the Greater New Haven NAACP, talks to people in the community about getting a flu vaccine through Yale's School of Medicine's Community Health Care Van, Fri., Dec. 11, 2020.

Health providers and hospitals at this time of year would typically see rising numbers of patients coming in with fever, cough, sore throat and body aches -- classic symptoms of the flu.

“In a bad year, hundreds by this time,” said Keith Grant, director of infection prevention at Hartford HealthCare.

But this is far from a normal year. 

“Right now at this point, we’ve seen one patient,” he said. “One patient through Hartford HealthCare [acute hospitals] with the flu.”

Flu activity is at historic lows not only in Connecticut, but across the country. Health experts say it’s clear evidence that the social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and other precautions against COVID-19 work in preventing other viral diseases.

Alan Siniscalchi, surveillance coordinator for influenza, bioterrorism and public health preparedness at the state Department of Public Health, said at the very least, it’s making people more aware of what they can do to protect themselves and others from illness going forward.

“We’re hopeful that when the pandemic begins to wane as we go on to the next few years, people will remember the lessons that they’ve taken in trying to be careful to avoid spreading not only COVID-19 but flu as well,” he said.

Credit U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Influenza-like illness activity is at low or minimal levels in every U.S. state and territory as of Jan. 16, 2021.

Connecticut has recorded about a dozen flu hospitalizations this season and fewer than 40 positive flu cases as of Jan. 16, according to DPH.

That’s an incredibly small fraction of the 643 hospitalizations and 3,281 positive flu tests reported by mid-January of last year.

Flu activity remains low now, but Siniscalchi said there’s evidence that it could pick up in February and March. That’s why he said testing for both flu and COVID-19 is important in making sure that cases of the flu don’t get missed in a large wave of coronavirus cases.

“This is especially important when individuals are being admitted into hospital,” he said, “because if it turns out it’s flu instead of COVID-19… there are very effective antivirals, for example, that can really reduce the severity of the illness and free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.”

Flu is a respiratory virus and transmission happens in very similar ways to COVID-19. When infected people sneeze or cough, their respiratory droplets are released into the air and can infect anyone nearby.

Although not as fatal as COVID-19, which has killed nearly 7,000 residents in 10 months, the flu can cause severe illness and death. Older residents, pregnant women and people with preexisting conditions are most at risk of poorer outcomes.

Flu can also be deadly for children. There were 195 influenza-associated pediatric deaths in the U.S. last season, which included at least one Connecticut child, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This season, only one such death has been recorded in the country.

“Pediatric deaths are ones we are particularly concerned about and try to prevent,” Siniscalchi said.

A couple of months ago, health experts worried they would face a “twindemic” of a severe flu season and ongoing COVID-19. That led to a big push for flu vaccination.

More than 192.5 million doses of flu vaccine have so far been distributed across the U.S., according to federal data, “which exceeds all previous records,” Siniscalchi said.

He added that DPH is still collecting flu vaccination data in Connecticut, but about half a million doses have been distributed to date.

Only 56% of Connecticut adults last season got a flu vaccine, national reports show. Coverage rates are lower among Black and Hispanic residents.

Health experts hope the uptake is higher this year, especially as scientists continue to study the health outcomes of people who become infected with both the flu and COVID-19.

In efforts to boost flu vaccine outreach, federal agencies awarded additional money this fall to organizations like the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, or CARE, at Southern Connecticut State University.

Bernard Macklin is the flu vaccination outreach coordinator for the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement at Southern Connecticut State University.
Credit Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Bernard Macklin is the flu vaccination outreach coordinator for the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement at Southern Connecticut State University.

CARE partnered with Yale Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, Yale New Haven Hospital, the city of New Haven and other community-based organizations to increase flu outreach and education in Black and brown neighborhoods and low-income areas.

“The CDC has been placing information out for years,” said Bernard Macklin. “It’s nothing new for them. But a lot of times, to be very honest, that information kind of gets shadowed as it begins to go into the inner city and dealing with people of color.”

Macklin, who is CARE’s flu vaccination outreach coordinator, said as a Black and African American man himself, he understands the fear and distrust of vaccines -- a lot of which can be connected to past and ongoing systemic racism.

It helps, Macklin said, when the people doing the outreach and administering the vaccines actually look like those in the communities they’re trying to reach.

“When you see other Black people out here representing this, it actually shows that hey, well maybe this is not as bad as I thought,” he said. “And that’s the kind of message we want to send.”

Macklin was out last month at a mobile clinic site held in an affordable housing development in New Haven with Yale’s Community Health Care Van and the Greater New Haven NAACP. A team of educators and nurses went knocking door to door.

Angel Ojeda is a health educator, HIV counselor and nutritionist at Yale’s School of Medicine who is regularly out with the mobile units.

“You know, you have conspiracy theories that people believe in, you have religious beliefs, there’s so many reasons why people just don’t get the flu, or even in the future the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said.

“It’s our job to be very transparent through that but also educate them and push them toward what we think is right. And then it’s their choice if they want or if they don’t want to get it.”

Team members said they eventually hope to get involved in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, but their work on flu vaccination and keeping that virus at bay remains a priority in the weeks and months ahead.

And, Siniscalchi said, it’s still not too late to get a flu vaccine. 

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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