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Flu season so far mirroring pre-pandemic levels but continuing good health habits learned during COVID could slow its spread

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Flu vaccines are one way to stay healthy and limit spread.

Recent trends and data suggest that Crook County should brace for one of the strongest flu seasons they have seen in at least the past three years.

But the community's communicable disease coordinator doesn't believe it has to follow that projected path if people take proactive steps to prevent flu infection and slow spread.

Data provided by Oregon Health Authority show flu numbers climbing sharply since the beginning of October. Emergency department visits in Central Oregon for influenza like illness (ILI) have begun a steep climb as has test positivity. In fact, the test positivity curve mirrors, almost exactly, the curve in October 2019. Test positivity that year spiked at nearly 40% in mid-December and remained higher than 30% through January before dropping into the 20% range in February 2020. Through Nov. 2, in the 2022-23 flu season, Central Oregon has seen 653 positive flu tests.

While recent data seems to support predictions of a flu season more on par with pre-COVID seasons, Karen Yeargain, Crook County Health Department's communicable disease coordinator, does not believe it is inevitable. And her reasoning goes back to how the 2019-20 flu season played out once COVID showed up in Oregon.

"In 2020, with COVID hitting, the mask mandates and the other respiratory virus control measures that were started…there were a lot of things that really ramped up in 2020 that also control other respiratory viruses, including influenza or RSV," she said.

The result is positive flu tests plummeted from late February through early April, and though flu tests were still administered when people got sick, virtually no flu tests turned up positive. And in fall 2020, when the flu season would traditionally start, few flu tests came back positive.

"We almost didn't have a flu season," Yeargain remarked.

But once the Omicron surge from December 2021 waned in the early spring, and mask mandates and other associated COVID prevention measures were relaxed, flu cases returned — an atypical early April spike in positive flu tests that peaked at nearly 15% later that month and ultimately plummeted eight weeks later.

"Things started going around again," Yeargain recalls.

Going into the traditional flu season, health experts have not yet declared an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they continue to relax the rules and recommendations associated with preventing its spread. And while flu cases are on the rise in October, state health data shows a modest but consistent decline in cases, test positivity, hospitalizations and deaths with COVID during the same timeframe.

"With COVID, we see ups and downs, but we are not seeing as high of rate as we were a year ago, for sure," Yeargain acknowledged.

But she doesn't believe that should encourage people to forego the new health habits that emerged during the pandemic. She believes people should still get flu and COVID vaccines, stay home from work or school if they are sick and consider social distancing if an illness is circulating in the community.

"I think, looking at this coming season, we don't have the mask mandate, but we have built enough of our good habits of the rest of the things to prevent respiratory transmissions," Yeargain said. "If we keep doing these things, our flu season may not be as big as it has been historically…If we use the prevention tools, it's going to keep our COVID numbers down, too…It's not a time to slack off — it is time to continue being careful."

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