Flu numbers drop dramatically in N.C. as people mask up, stay home

Flu deaths in North Carolina have dwindled from the hundreds to just four so far this season. New Hanover Regional Medical Center is seeing the lowest levels of influenza on record. (Port City Daily photo/Hannah Leyva)

WILMINGTON — Health officials around the globe are seeing the flu and other respiratory illnesses subside as people stay home, hand-wash more intently and don masks in public during the Covid-19 pandemic.

These precautionary practices – dubbed “the 3Ws” by North Carolina’s top health official Dr. Mandy Cohen – are preventing people from catching less contagious respiratory diseases than Covid-19, while still slowing the spread of the new deadly virus that has infiltrated life over the past year.

Related: By the Numbers: Covid-19 data in New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender for week of Feb. 1


While public mask-wearing to prevent illness hasn’t been seen as regularly in American culture as in other countries, 2020 encouraged the approach when the CDC suggested in April that individuals should wear masks as a protective measure against Covid-19 viral spread. It wasn’t until July that Gov. Roy Cooper required face coverings in all public spaces.

These measures have resulted in fewer deaths from influenza. Only four people have passed away from the flu this season statewide, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). That equals 182 fewer deaths so far compared to last year’s flu season. In 2018-2019, the number of deaths exceeded 200.

The health department gathers data from seven of the largest healthcare systems in the state to measure levels of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus.

“Not only are the 3Ws having a big impact on the spread of flu and other respiratory viruses,” Cohen said in a statement last Friday, “this data shows us that the spread of Covid-19 would likely be much higher if we weren’t taking these measures.”

Locally, New Hanover Regional Medical Center is noticing the same trends. The hospital system, which spans a seven-county region, is reporting fewer admissions for influenza than previous years. In fact, it’s the lightest flu season on record for NHRMC.

“This downward trajectory of respiratory illness can be attributed to many of the same preventative measures, such as social distancing, mask wearing, and frequent handwashing, that we use for Covid-19,” Pamela Firetti, an RN with NHRMC Infection Prevention and Control, said.

Insurance and health programs are also reporting the change. North Carolina’s Medicaid has seen expense claims for the flu treatment drug Tamiflu fall by 98.2%.

To credit for the scant spread of the flu, health departments ramped up their public-health messaging about the importance of receiving a flu shot this year. New Hanover and Brunswick counties hosted drive-through flu shot events earlier in the year to encourage folks to get their vaccinations. Pender County operates two clinics for walk-in shot appointments

As of late January, 193 million doses of flu vaccines have been administered in the U.S., according to the CDC. In 2019-2020, 174 million were injected into arms.

Flu season spans the fall and winter in the U.S., hitting hardest between December and February. Yet, activity can persist through May.

Although recommended early into the season, vaccinations are still being offered at various pharmacies and medical centers.

“It is still possible that we could see flu this respiratory season,” Firetti said.

The CDC says getting a flu vaccine this year still is “more important than ever.”

Overall, Covid-19 is more threatening than the flu because of its rapid spread and potentially serious illnesses for some people. Someone who is carrying the virus may not show symptoms for many days, while they are contagious and for a longer time than if infected with the flu.

In the past year, there have been more than 470,100 deaths due to Covid-19. That’s seven times higher than the deadliest flu season on record, 2017-2018, which had an estimated 61,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

With flu numbers scarce for the 2020-21 year, hospitals have had more capacity than normal to take on Covid-19 cases, likely preventing more Covid-19 deaths.

There are between 9 and 45 million flu illnesses each year in the U.S., resulting in around 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations. In 2018-2019, 490,000 people went to the hospital for the flu. 

“Reducing hospitalizations because of flu and other respiratory illness has been critically important to helping NC’s hospitals manage surges in Covid-19 cases,” Cohen said. “We must keep practicing preventative measures such as wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing our hands so we can continue to help save lives.”


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