Unexpected Bonus: No Flu

by James A. Bacon

The verdict is still out on how well Virginia’s social-distancing measures are working to contain the COVID-19 virus, but it’s sure working against the flu.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) tracks the spread of influenza in order to “provide situational awareness, inform prevention strategies, and prepare for a potential pandemic.” It disseminates weekly reports that classify the previous week by the level of influenza activity: widespread, regional, local, sporadic, and no activity.

The spread of influenza in Virginia was classified as “widespread” — with elevated influenza-like illnesses or more than one outbreak in three or more regions — for nineteen weeks running during the 2019-20 flu season. Then, according to a VDH report generated Thursday (reflecting data for the week ending April 15), influenza activity dropped off a microbiological cliff — to “no activity.”

It seems reasonable to attribute the massive fall-off in the spread of the flu to the draconian social-distancing measures imposed by Governor Ralph Northam. Halting influenza dead in its microbiological tracks may seem small compensation for the massive disruption caused by the shutdown, but it is something.

However, a focus on the flu also resurrects the issue of, “At what price?”

In 2017, Virginia logged 1,245 deaths to flue/pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That level of mortality was background noise compared to deaths attributable to cancer (15,064), heart disease (14,861), accidents (3,922) and six other causes, but Virginia wasn’t destroying its economy in a frantic effort to stem the epidemic of (pick your poison) flu, cancer, heart disease, automobile accidents, or kidney failure.

So far, COVID-19 is responsible for 258 deaths. That toll will rise, and it likely will exceed the number for flu/pneumonia before it’s all over. Moreover, the number of fatalities likely would be even greater were it not for the social-containment measures. Still, as a society we are imposing crippling costs upon ourselves. Surely it is appropriate to think about how to find a new balance between saving lives from COVID-19 and ruining lives from economic collapse.

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3 responses to “Unexpected Bonus: No Flu”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is actually a pretty important concept. By comparing the spread of prior infections with current – we have a way to better calibrate the degree of social distancing. Right now, determining the actual level of social distancing is a bit of a WAG.

  2. Implication is things like face masks here to stay as a voluntary measure. Now that I understand what an N95 mask is, I like it, when the price comes down.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Some day, maybe soon, I’d expect most stores to hand them to people coming into the store for free or a little bit and yours to keep til your next visit where you’ll get another.

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