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Josh Bergeron: Better-than-usual flu season attributed to COVID-19 precautions

Mask wearing and social distancing are proving their worth for more than COVID-19.

While there’s no previous coronavirus pandemic to compare to, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services says this season’s flu data are dramatically below previous years. The state’s seven-largest health care systems report four deaths from the flu this season so far as compared to 186 last season and 200 during the 2018-2019 season.

Levels of respiratory syncytial virus are down, too. Medicaid patients in North Carolina also have seen a 98.2% reduction in expense claims for Tamiflu, which is used to treat influenza.

“Altogether, this data tells us the preventative measures we’re taking are working,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy K. Cohen. “Not only are the 3Ws having a big impact on the spread of flu and other respiratory viruses, this data shows us that the spread of COVID-19 would likely be much higher if we weren’t taking these measures.”

In a news release, Cohen said reducing hospitalizations because of flu and other illness has been important to managing surges in COVID-19 cases.

“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,” Cohen said.

And it’s not just North Carolina. In its latest weekly update on the state of the flu, the Centers for Disease Control says positive tests reported by public health labs remains “unusually low.” There are 0.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 people in the U.S. and one pediatric death for the entire season so far, according to CDC data. In reporting the nationwide trend, health officials say COVID-19 precautions — wearing a mask, keeping a physical distance between yourself and others in public places, washing your hands regularly and avoiding gatherings with people outside of your household — are helping with this year’s flu season.

We’ve received plenty of questions at the Post that go something like: “If masks are working, why are COVID-19 numbers still going up as quickly as they are?” Mostly, the answer is that COVID-19 is very contagious and people continue to disregard precautions when getting together with friends and relatives who don’t live in the same home.

Local and state data show it is people in my age group who represent the plurality of cases and, therefore, bear the greatest blame for COVID-19’s spread. Rowan County data show the 18-35 age group has produced 3,532 positives — about 600 more than the next-highest age group, 36-50.

Meanwhile, families gathered over the holidays. That led to a spike in cases and deaths. This year, Rowan County is averaging more than two deaths per day from COVID-19. The coronavirus was one of the leading causes of death in Rowan County in 2020.

All that and people still think masks work, skeptics quip. But people with the same skepticism should look at the better-than-usual flu season. Let’s not imagine a coronavirus pandemic without the precautions society is taking today.

Particularly for the anti-mask crowd or those who are not-so-happily complying, an understandable question is whether the positive data about the flu means mask wearing will continue forever. The answer: Maybe.

There will come a time when state officials feel comfortable lifting the current mask mandate, but it seems logical that people will continue voluntarily indefinitely. People would have looked at you crazy if you were wearing a mask in a grocery store 365 days ago. But it might be fairly normal 365 days from now. Countries in East Asia were wearing masks long before COVID-19, and a portion of the population might continue to do the same in America once the pandemic subsides.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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