Health Officials Hope End of Mask Mandate Won’t Lead to Spread of Influenza

Gov. Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris, state health officer, discussed extending the state’s masking requirement on March 4, 2021. (Source: Governor’s Office, Hal Yeager)

The number of influenza cases has been extremely low this year, medical and public health officials say, in part thanks to protective measures that are being taken against Covid.

And officials say they hope there will not be an increase in the number of flu cases when one of those measures — the state’s mask mandate — is lifted on April 9.

“The flu season typically peaks in January and February, when the number of cases is through the roof,” said UAB Family Medicine Dr. Stephen Russell. He said he can count on one hand the number of adult patients he has seen with flu this season.

Russell attributes the decrease to the mask mandate, required social distancing in public, thorough handwashing and a push by UAB last fall for more flu vaccines. The push came about because of the dreaded outcome for anyone who suffered from Covid and the flu.

Dr. Wesley Willeford, medical director of disease control for the Jefferson County Health Department, agrees. He added that the use of online courses by school systems also decreased the spread of influenza.

“It also has made it difficult for the flu to gain a foothold and spread to a large number of people,” he said.

“For the 2020-2021 season, we have seen incredibly low rates of influenza, and we have not seen our typical spikes in cases,” Willeford said.
National and state statistics reflect the county’s numbers.

Last fall, Alabama set an influenza baseline at 3.28% for the number of expected flu cases. That baseline percentage had not been reached through March 13, according to the state Department of Public Health. No flu outbreaks had been reported by week 10, posted March 13, and the percentage of reported cases was 0.97.

The 2.6% baseline set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has not been breached.

The flu season generally starts in the fall, peaks between December and February, and can last until May, according to the CDC. A CDC map of the U.S. that includes the North Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands has given all states a green color for the minimal number of flu cases for week 10 of the flu season, ending March 13.

Russell said Covid safety precautions have turned out to be “an amazing good way to protect people from getting the flu.”

In early 2020, he said, some of his patients said they had had the worst case of the flu. That was before Covid testing became available in mid-March.

“They may have had Covid,” he said.
Russell said he worries that there will be an uptick in the number of flu cases when the mask mandate expires.

Willeford said it is difficult to know how the lifting of the mask mandate will affect influenza activity because April and springtime mark the decline of flu season.

“My hope is that rates remain low as we move into the spring season,” he added.

Although the number of adult cases of flu has declined this season, Russell, who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics, said he is seeing an increased number of flu cases in children less than four years old, the age group that is not required to wear a mask. His observation is backed up by CDC data.

A case of flu can put elementary school-age and younger children in a hospital, he said.

He added that it is not too late to get a flu shot at a pharmacy or a primary health care office.