It may be hard to fathom, but the pandemic seems to have an upside, too: The flu is pretty much nonexistent this year. Popular Science delivers the remarkable stat: In 2019, the US recorded 65,000 cases from late September to late December. In 2020, that figure dropped to 1,000. It seems that all the precautions people are taking to ward off COVID—masks, social distancing, avoidance of indoor social activities, etc.—are working to keep the flu at bay, too. In addition, flu shots are up. Researchers also are studying the theory that some kind of complex interplay between COVID and the flu is at play. As in, the virus behind COVID might be raising people's immunity levels against the flu, per the Wall Street Journal. However, more research is needed to understand that possibility.
"This is an extremely puzzling phenomenon," says pediatrician Norio Sugaya, who sits on the World Health Organization's influenza committee. "We're in a historic, unbelievable situation." It's not just in the US: Flu numbers are similarly down around the world. The trend began in Australia and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, where flu cases typically peak between June and August, notes Smithsonian. The big question is what happens when COVID goes away. As Science explains, one fear is that the flu will come back strong next season because so few people got it this year. But that could be mitigated if people adapt COVID safety protocols more permanently or perhaps make more of a point to get their flu shots. The flu typically kills hundreds of thousands of people annually worldwide, and “we need to ask ourselves whether we are going to continue to allow it in the future," virologist Tetsuya Mizutani tells the Journal. (Read more flu stories.)