Editorial: Where has the flu flown?

Contributed Photo

Column By Mike Bibb

Call me a skeptic, but has this season’s influenza flown south for the winter?

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of Feb. 6, there have only been 849 flu cases statewide; 15,125 fewer than the five-year average.  About 95% less.

Graham County has reported a minuscule nine cases.  Ordinarily, the average is 183.  Greenlee County has experienced one case.

How can this be, considering COVID-19 statistics are through the roof?

As I understand it, both COVID and influenzas (flu) are somewhat similar in composition.  Actually, I believe COVID-19 is an acronym for “coronavirus disease, 2019.”  Not being a flu or virus expert, and certainly lacking schooling and training in infectious diseases, I can only report what I observe as an ordinary citizen.

Consequently, when information and numbers, like the above, are released to the public, and I see the obvious disparity from previous years’ reporting, I can’t help but wonder how or why this can be?  Can the seasonal flu pendulum swing from one extreme to the other in a single year?  Particularly, a pandemic year when coronavirus germs have engulfed the globe?

So, a brief computer search of the Centers for Disease Controls (CDC) website provided a few answers to the differences and similarities between COVID and the flu.  However, I couldn’t find an adequate explanation of why this year’s influenzas are on hiatus.

I was seeking answers to three simple questions:

 Q.  Do COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms?

 A.  “COVID-19 and the flu are both infectious illnesses that can affect breathing and have similar symptoms, including fever, or feverish/chills.  Cough.  Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, but they are caused by different viruses.”  Sep. 17, 2020

 Q.  Can you get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?

 A.  “Yes.  It is possible to have flu as well as other respiratory illnesses, and COVID-19 at the same time.  Health experts are still studying how common this can be.  Some of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, making it hard to tell the difference between them based upon symptoms alone.”  Jan. 14, 2021

Q.  Does having a weakened immune system increase your risk of illness from COVID-19?

A. “Many conditions and treatments can cause a person to be immunocompromised or have a weakened immune system.  These include having a solid organ transplant, blood, or bone marrow transplant; immune deficiencies; HIV with a low CD4 cell count or not on HIV treatment; prolonged use of corticosteroids; or use of other immune weakening medicines.  Having a weakened immune system may increase your risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”  www.cdc.gov 

This is nice information to know, but it still doesn’t answer the question of why influenza cases have nosedived into near oblivion?

Let me speculate, as Dr. Fauci often does.  I’m sure other readers will quickly correct my assumptions as being the ravings of a certifiable idiot.  They may be right.  Actually, my mother reminded me on more than one occasion that if I had been born with the brains God gave a pomegranate, and then spread the stuff on a slice of toast, I’d actually have a purpose in life.

She had a point, but to this day I believe it was just her way of expressing affection and a sincere desire I might grow-up to be something more significant than an IRS-approved child tax credit.  Which, at the time, must have been the extent of my usefulness to the family’s financial bottom line. 

By the CDC’s admission, COVID and the flu possess similar characteristics.  If true, is it possible a certain percentage of flu cases may have been mistakenly reported as COVID?  Are COVID tests limited to revealing the presence of COVID, or can they also expose influenza bugs?  Since COVID hospitalizations are probably more expensive — and profitable — than flu hospitalizations, is it possible this could be one of the underlying reasons influenza cases have plummeted?  When COVID is listed as a cause of death, is it recorded as a primary or comorbidity?  Again, CDC has previously stated only about 6% of COVID-related deaths have been the direct result of the actual virus.  The remaining 94% involved serious preexisting health issues, or other prominent concerns, including weakened and “compromised” immune systems. 

To assist in flu management, the prevalence of flu vaccines has become common.  Many chain drugstores and large supermarkets regularly offer flu shots.  Have for years.  However, the effectiveness of the shots seems to fluctuate.  Since vaccines are prepared and offered to the public several months in advance of influenza arriving, it’s a guessing game the shots will actually be an effective antidote to a particular strain. 

Influenzas are developing and mutating regularly.  That’s what they do.  To expect a current vaccine to be highly effective against some kind of future flu is a crap-shoot.  Scientists rely upon past experiences to help assist in vaccine developments.  Often, they guess correctly, other times require more research.   

Another possible cause for a decrease of the flu is the national lockdown, proliferation of facemasks, social distancing, and stay-at-home mandates.  Like COVID, influenza is an airborne pathogen and subject to many of the same government restrictions. 

However, to experience a 95% reduction in the number of reported cases from one year to the next is most unusual, if not extraordinary.  There must be another explanation not being revealed to the public. 

I don’t know what it is, but there is the usual suspicion it probably involves money; lots and lots of it.  Usually, the primary source of unlimited chunks of money and spending is the federal government.  We’ve seen this scenario throughout the COVID epidemic.  Billions of dollars have been spent on stimulus programs, vaccine development and distribution, educational programs, hospitalizations, and every conceivable form of assistance related to the virus.

COVID and restrictive government decrees have brought the entire country to a near standstill, yet discussion of the yearly flu has practically been nonexistent.  I don’t recall schools, churches, commerce, and certain civil rights ever being suspended because of a flu outbreak, even though we’ve survived various diseases many times before COVID was ever heard of.   

Maybe our immune systems are actually working to retard flu infections.  After all, nature installed them into our bodies for a reason.  Or, maybe the lack of flu reporting activity is as simple as another basic human desire — the lure of control over society and COVID big bucks has overwhelmed this year’s influenza concerns.