Mask wearing, social distancing has cut seasonal flu hospitalizations by two-thirds, health officials say

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Hospitalizations due to seasonal influenza have decreased two-thirds compared to last year, according to information from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

But, despite those lower numbers, the state is bracing itself for what a dual pandemic could mean for hospitals this fall. 

While about a quarter of inpatient hospital beds have remained open over the last few weeks, that could quickly change if there’s a surge in both COVID-19 and seasonal flu cases following Thanksgiving gatherings. 

“If we have a big surge in either influenza or COVID-19, or both of them, we run the risk of being overwhelmed and unable to care for that surge of patients,” said Jane Kelly, DHEC’s assistant state epidemiologist. 

The state reported its first influenza death of the 2020-21 season last week — an individual who was from the Pee Dee area. 

There have been a total of 21 lab-confirmed flu cases and 38 hospitalizations this year, compared to 83 and 120 at this time last year. 

Of those hospitalized this year, two are under the age of 11, 13 are between 18 and 49 years old, eight are between 50 and 64 years old and 15 are 65 years or older.

Flu activity is still considered minimal, according to a DHEC flu surveillance report from last week. 

The previous flu season — which ended in September — ended with 6,727 lab-confirmed cases, 3,000 hospitalizations and 141 deaths. 

Many people who get the seasonal flu never seek medical treatment or get tested, meaning that the true number of cases is likely much higher than what is reported to the state. Some health care providers voluntarily send testing information to DHEC, and the agency also relies on hospitals when gathering data. 

Kelly attributes the lower number of hospitalizations this year to warmer weather that’s kept people outdoors, along with behavioral and social changes. Hand washing, mask wearing and options like grocery delivery and pickups have also kept the most vulnerable population protected, and additional health measures in schools have also led to fewer cases among children, who generally spread the flu easily.

But no safety measure is 100% dependable, Kelly said, and people shouldn’t be letting their guard down. She said this year’s strain contains H1N1 influenza, and there are concerns this year’s flu may be a more serious than in previous seasons.

“We are definitely treating this seriously,” she said. 

Kelly encourages getting a seasonal flu shot, pointing out that there are different immunization options for those who have allergies, are immunocompromised or are pregnant. 

“This might be the most important flu shot anyone ever gets,” she said. 

The medical community will be entering unknown territory this winter “We have never had a situation where we have two simultaneous pandemics,” Kelly said. 

The state’s fear is that a surge in both viruses after Thanksgiving will overwhelm hospital systems, leading to the potential of more fatalities. 

About 75.58% of South Carolina’s 11,163 inpatient beds were occupied, as of a Tuesday update from DHEC. Of those, 873 were COVID-19 patients. About 72.5% of intensive care unit beds were in use, with 211 of the 1,228 in use housing COVID-19 patients. 

Because the seasonal flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, it can be hard to distinguish between the two viruses without testing. Kelly said there are tests that can simultaneously test for both illnesses. 

“This is a very important year to get tested,” she said. 

As of Tuesday, there have been 196,330 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 4,010 confirmed deaths attributed to the virus in South Carolina, according to an update Tuesday from DHEC.

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