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Hospital says no positive flu tests registered yet for 2020-21 season

Official attributes lack of cases to COVID-19 precautions

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
San Juan Regional Medical Center personnel prepare flu shots for local residents during one of the institution's drive-thru clinics during the fall in the hospital's parking lot.
  • San Juan Regional Medical Center official Penny Hill characterizes the lack of positive flu tests as "amazing."
  • Figures from the CDC reveal the phenomenon is a national one.
  • Hill said the hospital administered many more flu vaccines at the beginning of this season than it did last season.

FARMINGTON — As fall approached, many public health officials around the country, New Mexico and in San Juan County expressed cautious optimism that the precautions so many people were taking to avoid being infected during the COVID-19 pandemic were going to have a positive effect on the transmission rate for seasonal influenza this season.

And while it's still relatively early — flu season typically doesn't begin in earnest until late fall and doesn't peak until March — the indications so far are that the seasonal virus is having a much lower impact than normal.

"It's really amazing. We have not had a single flu positive case," Penny Hill, the infection prevention and employee health manager at San Juan Regional Medical Center, said Jan. 8 about the hospital's testing program. "For it to be this time in January (with no positive tests) is truly unheard of."

Hill attributed the lack of flu cases to the fact that so many people are wearing face masks, washing their hands frequently and practicing social distancing — the precautions they have been advised to undertake to avoid contracting COVID-19.

More than a local phenomenon

The hospital doesn't appear to be alone in what it has experienced. Data reported on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website are just as encouraging, showing a sharp nationwide downturn in flu cases this season. The agency's Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report update for the week ending Jan. 2 states, "Seasonal flu activity in the United States remains lower than usual for this time of year."

The agency reports that the number of positive influenza tests by reported by public health laboratories remains much lower than normal despite a higher than normal number of tests performed.

That trend is reflected nationwide, with most states, including New Mexico, reporting minimal flu activity — the least-severe classification on the CDC's five-tier reporting system. Only a handful of states are reporting low activity, which is the second-lowest classification, and none are reporting activity higher than that.

One of the most revealing data sets on the website is a graph that charts the percentage of visits for flu-like illnesses reported by the U.S. Outpatient Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network over the course of the year. The national baseline figure is a little more than 2.5%, but the number of weekly visits charted over the course of this flu season has hovered between 1% and 1.75%, well below what normally would have been seen so far. And it compares even more favorably to two recent flu seasons, which peaked at more than 7% in 2019-2020 and nearly 8% in 2017-2018.

Penny Hill

Hill did not have information available for how many positive flu tests the San Juan Regional Medical Center had recorded at this point in the 2019-2020 season, but she said the total for the entire season was 95 patients.

She also said that the remarkable decrease in local numbers is not because the hospital isn't looking for it.

"We are testing," she said, explaining that employees and members of the public who present symptoms are tested for COVID-19, the flu and other viruses so that health care providers know what it is they are dealing with.

"We're thrilled," she said of the lack of positive flu tests, adding that health-care providers are being severely taxed by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, and if they were facing a typical flu season on top of that, they might be overwhelmed.

Hill laughed when she said that her contact at the New Mexico Department of Health continues to remind her via email each week that, in addition to reporting the hospital's COVID-19 numbers, Hill is responsible for reporting the facility's flu numbers.

San Juan Regional Medical Center personnel prepare to administer flu vaccines to residents at a drive-thru clinic in the hospital's parking lot during the fall.

"I keep saying, 'We don't have any — we know it's on our radar,' " she said.

The lack of flu cases has been especially surprising of late, Hill said. She explained in an interview with The Daily Times early in the fall that she always sees a surge in flu cases after Thanksgiving and Christmas, when people traditionally don't just gather with their families, but travel across the country to do so, potentially exposing themselves to hotspots and often carrying the virus home after they become infected.

Those holiday-related flu bumps did not occur this year, she said, even though the number of COVID-19 cases did rise in the wake of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Hill said a possible reason for that discrepancy may be the apparent willingness of so many folks to immunize themselves against the flu this year.

"I think it was all the messaging that went out in the fall about the importance of getting a flu shot," she said. "I think it was heard."

The numbers the hospital is reporting seem to bear that out. Hill said her institution held two drive-thru flu shot clinics in the fall and administered 654 vaccines. That represents a substantial increase over the 556 vaccines that were administered in 2019, and Hill noted five flu shot clinics were held that year, giving local residents far more opportunities to become immunized.

Hill also said the hospital provided an additional 100 flu vaccines to the county division of the New Mexico Department of Health this year, and she believes all of them were administered. That means approximately 200 more people received a hospital vaccine in San Juan County this season than last season.

Despite all that good news, Hill knows better than to declare victory against the seasonal flu, as the worst part of the season usually comes in the months that follow.

More:Health officials say onset of flu season another wild card in COVID-19 pandemic

"No, we are holding off on that one," she said. "But we are pleased there haven't been any cases, and we hope people continue to wear masks and wash their hands, and that we don't see any (flu) deaths."

Hill emphasized anyone who has not yet received a flu shot should have no trouble finding a health-care provider who can give them one.

"It's not too late," she said. "You probably can get one at almost any pharmacy."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.