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Coronavirus precautions have kept flu cases down

So far, the influenza virus has impacted far fewer people this year compared to past flu seasons. Since September, only 22 Minnesotans have been hospitalized for the flu.

face mask and hand sanitizer
A woman cleans her hands with antiseptic hand gel. (Getty Images)
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As far as virus focus goes, COVID-19 continues to be at the forefront as discoveries of the newest strain begin to pop up in Minnesota. However, there has been little mention of the influenza virus, which typically infects many people during the winter, because it is not yet spreading at its usual rate.

The Minnesota Department of Health reports 22 hospitalizations of influenza patients statewide between Sept. 27 and Jan. 9. One of those hospitalizations was in Northeastern Minnesota between Nov. 7 and 14. In total, 4,022 Minnesotans were hospitalized during the 2019-20 flu season.

The health department reported the first Minnesota flu-related death of the 2020-21 season last week. The person, whose city of residence was unavailable, was at least 80 years old.

Dr. Sara Lund, infectious disease physician at St. Luke’s, said flu cases are much lower at this time compared to past years because people are taking more precautions with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s primarily social distancing and people wearing masks and not getting together — the usual things that spread any respiratory virus,” Lund said.


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Flu season typically starts in the late fall and lasts into April or May. Lund said this season, influenza is not yet widespread and she didn’t believe more than one or two cases had been identified at St. Luke’s.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified just over 1,000 positive flu cases throughout the U.S. between Sept. 27 and Jan. 2.

Sixty percent of the 925 positive cases reported by clinical laboratories were Influenza B, while 60% of the 159 cases confirmed by public health laboratories were Influenza A. More than 600,000 specimens have been tested for both types of flu.

Besides masking and social distancing, Lund said the flu vaccine is partially to thank. The flu shot was released earlier in the year than usual in 2020 and has been more widely administered.

But that doesn’t mean people can write off the flu for the season.

“We know that flu is out there. It’s not as if it went away this year,” Lund said. “It’s still there, but it’s all of these social factors that are keeping it at bay — but it could flare up at any time.”


Many flu symptoms are similar to COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, headache, cough, fatigue and sore throat. COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu and has a longer incubation period. With the flu, most people feel symptoms one to four days after exposure to the virus and are no longer contagious 24-48 hours after a fever and cough subside. COVID-19 symptoms can take two to 14 days to appear, and infected people are usually contagious for about two weeks after exposure, even without symptoms. People infected with COVID-19 may also experience loss of taste or smell.

“Most people that get tested for any kind of influenza-like illness or viral-like symptoms have, by far, been found to have COVID if they have any infection,” Lund said of local instances.

St. Luke’s and Essentia Health have tests that will screen for both COVID-19 and the flu. St. Luke’s is not yet doing widespread testing of both simply because the flu hasn’t yet been widely transmitted.

Essentia Health has the ability to test for COVID-19, influenza A and B, and respiratory syncytial virus with a single test available to inpatients at all Essentia hospitals, according to Louie St. George, Essentia media relations specialist.

Lund’s advice to the public for keeping the flu at bay is a familiar tune to many by now: Continue washing hands, social distancing and staying away from other people if feeling sick. She also noted that it is not too late to get a flu shot if one hasn’t already.

Lund, Sara
Dr. Sara Lund, infectious disease physician at St. Luke's Health Care System. free

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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