ST. LOUIS — A typical flu season the past few years in Missouri has led to as many as 279 deaths in the state.
But this influenza season is far from typical due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a historically low number of Missourians dying because of the common flu.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) has recorded two influenza-associated deaths this flu season, which started in October and runs through May. While there’s still another month of flu season to go, we’re past the peak, which the CDC says typically goes from December through February. The current flu activity in the state is described as “sporadic” in the latest report.
The two flu-related deaths this season are drastically lower than recent years, according to state health department data. Last season, 101 people died from the flu.
Flu-associated deaths in Missouri, by season:
- 2020-21: 2 deaths (season still in progress)
- 2019-20: 101 deaths
- 2018-19: 93 deaths
- 2017-18: 279 deaths
- 2016-17: 99 deaths
The decline in flu deaths is overshadowed by the devastating toll the pandemic has taken on the state. 5 On Your Side isolated the COVID-19-related deaths in the state during this flu season and found 6,452 people died as a result of the coronavirus, compared to the two deaths attributed to the flu.
St. Louis area health experts said measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 were a big factor in preventing a “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19.
“This is further evidence that universal precautions such as mask wearing, social distancing and frequent handwashing work to prevent the spread of viruses such as influenza and COVID-19,” said St. Louis County health department spokesperson Sara Dayley.
The St. Charles County health director also attributed mask wearing and other common health measures to there being no flu-related deaths and fewer cases in his county.
“Hopefully, this pandemic has changed our awareness so that we are better at practicing safe hygiene to limit the spread of all respiratory viruses,” Demetrius Cianci-Chapman said.
Missouri’s numbers are part of a trend seen across the U.S. Nationally, “this is the lowest flu season we’ve had on record,” according to a surveillance system that is about 25 years old, said Lynnette Brammer of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back in February.
The numbers are astonishing considering flu has long been the nation's biggest infectious disease threat. In recent years, it has been blamed for 600,000 to 800,000 annual hospitalizations and 50,000 to 60,000 deaths.
More than 190 million flu vaccine doses were distributed this season, but the number of infections is so low that it’s difficult for the CDC to do its annual calculation of how well the vaccine is working, Brammer said. There’s simply not enough data, she said.
That also is challenging the planning of next season's flu vaccine. Such work usually starts with checking which flu strains are circulating around the world and predicting which of them will likely predominate in the year ahead.
"But there's not a lot of (flu) viruses to look at," Brammer said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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