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Flu season highlights coronavirus pandemic toll on Oklahoma deaths, hospitalizations

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

The annual flu season is having little impact on southern Oklahomans, thanks to measures taken to slow the spread of coronavirus, while putting the toll of COVID-19 into perspective. Despite historically low flu numbers in Oklahoma, state health officials still want residents to get the flu shot. 

The Oklahoma State Department of Health this week reported 140 flu-related hospitalizations since Sept. 1, six of which were recorded between Jan. 10 and Jan. 16. In the middle of peak flu season and months away from the official August end of the season, the number of hospitalizations for the 2020-2021 flu season is a fraction of previous years’ totals. 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the toll COVID-19

The previous flu season recorded 3,580 hospitalizations while the worst flu season in the state since at least 2009 occurred between 2017 and 2018, when 4,840 flu-related hospitalizations were recorded by OSDH. 

By comparison, COVID-19 has resulted in more than 20,000 hospitalizations since March 2020.

Less than halfway through the current flu season, Oklahoma is on pace to record fewer than 300 flu hospitalizations this season. Carter County has only recorded a single flu hospitalization, according to OSDH data, and public health officials say positivity rates in the local region are extremely low for this time of year. 

“In the region where Carter County is located, our Southwest region, this week we saw five out of 350 sentinel specimens positive for Influenza, or 1.4%. This is low for this point in the season, likely due to social distancing and mask wearing,” said Cassandra Mecoy, an OSDH influenza surveillance coordinator. 

State health officials reiterated the belief that coronavirus precautions are behind the sharp drop in flu cases across the state. 

“That very likely is attributable to many of the COVID interventions and mitigation strategies. Wearing a face covering, maintaining distance, hand hygiene, all of these things are effects against any respiratory transmitted viruses,” state epidemiologist Dr. Jared Taylor told reporters on Friday.

One flu-related death has been reported so far this season, compared to 85 during last year’s flu season.  

“Sadly, the death identified this week was located in the Southwest region as well,” Mecoy said through a spokesperson on Friday. Privacy concerns prevent the state health department from releasing county information on flu deaths but confirmed the death was that of a person over 65 years old.   

With influenza hospitalizations and deaths down significantly in Oklahoma and across the nation, data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the toll coronavirus is having on Americans. During the 2017-2018 flu season, weekly flu deaths across the country peaked just above 1,600. Last month, weekly COVID-19 deaths peaked just over 20,000. 

Between Sept. 1, 2009 and Aug. 29, 2020, 952 Oklahomans died from influenza, according to OSDH data. A similar number of COVID-19 deaths – 943 – was recorded by OSDH between Sept. 1, 2020 and Nov. 30, 2020. 

Heart disease was the leading cause of death in Oklahoma in 2017, the most recent CDC data available, with cancer ranked second and chronic lower respiratory disease ranked third with just over 3,000 deaths. 

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed at least 3,187 Oklahoman lives since March 2020. 

With a historically inactive flu season likely thanks to a raging coronavirus pandemic, state health officials stress the importance of vaccinations to keep citizens safe by slowing community spread of communicable diseases.  

“And of course get your flu vaccine. It’s not too late to get that,” Taylor said.