121020_dr_Flu_2a (copy)

Registered nurse Christina Writz gave a flu shot to Alex Nicholson of Eau Claire at a free flu shot clinic held at Eau Claire North High School on Dec. 9. Chippewa Valley hospitals are reporting zero flu hospitalizations so far this flu season, and rates of the flu are far down across Wisconsin and the nation. Experts are pointing to social distancing and masks as part of the reason. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

EAU CLAIRE — Though COVID-19 is still sickening people across Wisconsin, flu cases and hospitalizations are much lower locally, statewide and across the nation.

Eau Claire hospitals have had zero flu hospitalizations this winter.

It’s a contrast to the same time last year, when nine Eau Claire County residents were hospitalized with the flu by early January, and Wisconsin had just over 3,000 positive influenza tests. (As of Jan. 9 this year, only 34 people have tested positive for the flu in Wisconsin.)

“Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire has had zero cases of influenza hospitalization so far this season,” said Kate Maguire, director of infection prevention at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

The low flu numbers prove that face masks and social distancing are highly effective against respiratory viruses, some Chippewa Valley health experts say.

Masks and social distancing appear to be very effective to stop the spread of influenza, not just COVID-19, said Dr. Richard Helmers, pulmonologist and Mayo Clinic Health System’s northwest Wisconsin regional vice president.

“In Mayo Clinic in the Midwest, we’ve seen maybe one or two cases of influenza,” Helmers told reporters last week at an Eau Claire County press briefing. “That’s another reason why it’s so crucial that people mask and socially distance … when we have more patients than normal with COVID-19, thankfully we don’t have patients with influenza as well.”

Experts in the fall warned of a potential “twindemic” — surges of both COVID-19 and influenza that could overwhelm hospitals simultaneously.

The coronavirus did sicken over 10,000 and has killed 95 in Eau Claire County since March, but a similar wave of the flu never materialized.

Zero people have been hospitalized for the flu this year so far at both HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, respectively, said HSHS infection prevention manager Sue Galoff.

“The flu starts at different times every year, so we’re not completely out of the woods yet, but typically most years, yes, we would have likely had some cases by now,” Galoff said.

What’s behind the drop in flu numbers?

“I do believe safety measures across the country are slowing the spread,” Maguire said in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “Nationally we are seeing very low rates. The southern hemisphere saw something similar during their flu season.”

Masking and social distancing are the likely causes, but if the flu vaccine is highly effective this year, it could also be slowing the flu’s spread, Galoff said.

“Higher vaccine rates tend to help, but with so few cases, it’s hard to say,” Maguire said.

Flu vaccines are formulated yearly, aimed at shielding against the three or four viruses suspected to be common in that flu season, according to the state health department. It’s a vaccine that’s more effective some years than others.

Scientists won’t know until closer to the summer if the flu shot was more effective than usual, Galoff cautioned.

No one has died of influenza in Wisconsin so far this flu season, according to a January respiratory virus report.

Just nine Wisconsin residents have been hospitalized with the flu this season so far, according to the report. At the same time last year, over 400 Wisconsin residents were hospitalized with the flu.

Flu shots up slightly

State data suggest that more Wisconsin residents will end up getting a flu shot this year

Wisconsin won’t reach its yearly target of 70% of the population getting a flu vaccine, however.

As of Jan. 9, flu vaccination coverage in Wisconsin was 3% higher than the same time last year, according to the state’s weekly virus report. (About 41% of the state’s residents had gotten a flu shot by that date.)

It’s not just Wisconsin — influenza activity is down nationwide.

On Jan. 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated five states as having low flu activity. The rest were rated minimal. (The CDC was based on the percentage of outpatient visits due to influenza-like illness.)

Experts can’t rule out a February or March surge of flu cases, though, and Galoff urged residents of the Chippewa Valley to get a flu shot if they haven’t already.

“The flu shot is always a good idea,” she said. “It’s never too late. We can have flu in this area through April, sometimes even early May.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.