Covid restrictions crushed the flu

Post-pandemic, let's declare zero tolerance for respiratory disease

My horrible, adorable children — ages 8, 8 and 4 — have been sick with one thing or another pretty much non-stop since school here opened back up (without a mask mandate!) the first week of September. Covid’s circulating in the community — as of last week fully 1 percent of the county population was in isolation with a positive case — so we keep a handful of rapid tests on hand and subjected the kids to the swab whenever any of their symptoms got bad enough. Miraculously enough, the tests have so far all been negative — underscoring just how many other nasty respiratory infections are coursing through the school-age population at the moment.

A recent article in Nature highlights how the past year’s Covid restrictions basically annihilated the flu worldwide. Seriously, check out these numbers for the U.S., which come from the World Health Organization’s FluNet monitoring service:

A flu season will typically yield tens of thousands of positive influenza tests each week. But all of last year’s Covid mitigation measures, including masking, distancing, remote work and school, increased hand washing, travel restrictions, and the like, basically drove documented flu cases down into the double digits weekly.

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When the pandemic is well and truly over — odds are for the average person, it will become more or less just like any other cold once there’s sufficient population-level immunity — I do hope we carry over some of this increased vigilance about other respiratory illnesses. Prior to Covid the flu typically killed tens of thousands of Americans each year (and since some mouth-breathing idiot is going to be in my mentions saying something stupid like “flu and Covid deaths just cancel each other out”: no they fucking don’t), while inflicting untold misery on tens of thousands more. There’s also RSV, which kills hundreds of small children and thousands of seniors annually. And don’t forget the common cold, responsible for millions of man-hours of simple misery and human suffering each year.

It’ll be a relief to finally ditch the stricter measures, like virtual classrooms and mask mandates and travel restrictions. But I’d like to see greater awareness of disease transmission translate into a greater willingness to keep kids home when they’re sick (please, start by abolishing “perfect attendance” awards) and to take sick days at work (a proper national sick leave policy — not the boondoggle currently being considered by Congress! — would be a decent first step). I will probably continue masking up in public during cold and flu season as well.

I also hope we continue to keep getting smarter about indoor ventilation, keeping windows open and airflow up when we can, rather than simply hotboxing classrooms and meeting rooms with our exhaled breath. Given everything we’re learning about just how harmful indoor air pollution can be, this will likely have benefits that go far beyond reduced disease transmission.

For the time being, however, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the first week since the start of the school year that none of my kids have to stay home sick. Wish me luck.