While attention has remained focused on the coronavirus pandemic, another respiratory disease has practically disappeared in Wisconsin.
Influenza cases in the state, and across the country, are lower than they have been in over a decade.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services releases a weekly respiratory report during flu season, detailing cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to influenza.
For the week of Jan. 25, 2020, there were 9,257 cases of flu in Wisconsin.
For the week of Jan. 23, 2021, there were 37.
Greg Stadter, program director for the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, a co-op of private and public organizations attempting to improve access to health care for underserved communities, said social distancing and COVID precautions have helped to drive the totals down.
The flu, which is spread through droplets similar to the coronavirus, has been handled relatively effective by masking and social distancing. People who have the flu are contagious for a much shorter period of time, and the disease does not spread as easily as COVID-19.
Dr. Mary Beth Graham, an infectious disease specialist who works at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital, said the number of cases was “profoundly low.”
She said national cases are down nearly a hundredfold this year, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Normally, about 10% to 20% of the national samples come back positive for influenza in a given week, she said.
For the week of Feb. 1, 0.1% of cases came back positive. Since Sept. 27, 2020, 0.2% of all samples have been positive.
Despite the low numbers, Graham said there was not a significant bump in vaccinations for influenza last year. Stadter helped lead an effort to get more people in Milwaukee vaccinated for the flu in anticipation of coinfection with the coronavirus.
Vaccinations were up to about 40% in southeastern Wisconsin for the 2020-21 flu season but saw declines in the Black and Latinx populations from the 2019-20 flu season, two target groups for the efforts.
“We tried to figure out how to promote free shots and make it low-barrier,” Stadter said.
The efforts included community events at the Progressive Community Health Center, 3522 W Lisbon Ave., and Muslim Community Health Center, 803 W Layton Ave.
He said over half of the people who came to these events were not established patients with the health centers, a sign that improvement is needed in getting community members involved in local health organizations. The partnership also included directories for free flu shots in their outreach.
Stadter warned that the flu season was still not over, and COVID-19 prevention measures should be factored into our understanding of the numbers. He also said it is not too late to get a flu shot.
Graham said there are lessons to take into the future from this flu season, particularly in the ways that have limited the spread. Masking, for instance, is a nonintrusive way to slow the spread of influenza, and this could be continued even after the coronavirus ends.
“These are really practical things people should think about doing every year,” Graham said.