The flu season that wasn't and what we can learn from it

Dean's Blog | April 22, 2021
Judith Karshmer

As an industry, nursing education and indeed all of health care, has produced so many aha moments in this last year! We have been coming up with really out-of-the-box ways to advance curricula and treatment strategies. But it’s the tried and true basics, good hygiene, staying home when you're ill and masking that has had a historical impact here in Arizona. 

Our partner, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, just shared some news related to this. Arizona has seen a 96% decrease in confirmed cases of influenza and a 100% decrease in respiratory syncytial virus compared to five-year seasonal averages. 

At PCH, they know what a full respiratory infection season normally looks like. But 2020 barely registered a blip in emergency department visits and hospital admissions. During contingency planning for a surge in COVID-19 cases coinciding with the 2020-21 flu and RSV season, the best guess was that it would be a winter like no other.

And it was, just nothing like anyone expected.

Why? Plausible assumptions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others are that community COVID-19 mitigation measures helped reduce transmission of less contagious respiratory infections. In other words, all of that social distancing, distance learning, hand washing and frequent use of hand sanitizers made a difference.

At the peak of a typical flu season, PCH often has to double-bunk children in rooms because of the high volume with respiratory illness. But neither the typical high respiratory illness caseload nor the worst-case COVID-19 hospitalization management scenario played out at PCH.

If we’re looking for any side benefits of communities sharing the responsibility of working through the COVID-19 crisis, having fewer children hospitalized with respiratory illness is a pretty good one. We should probably hang on to some of these COVID-19 mitigation habits for future flu seasons.