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Besieged with COVID patients, NC hospitals say they hope flu season remains tame

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 2021-01-09 Richard Stradling, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Jan. 9—RALEIGH — Hospitals in North Carolina have never been busier, as a growing number of coronavirus patients push them to capacity and press doctors, nurses and other health care workers to the point of exhaustion.

But public health officials and hospital administrators say it could be much worse if the state was experiencing a normal flu season on top of the pandemic.

So far, the flu season has been mild. Of the 2,099 specimens taken from patients and tested at the state public health laboratory in the two weeks ending Jan. 2, only two were found to have the flu, according to the latest update from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

From that same group of patients, 552 tested positive for COVID-19.

These numbers are reflected in the people admitted to hospitals.

On Friday, 3,960 people with COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals statewide, more than double the number in late November, according to DHHS. In contrast, hospitals report only a smattering of patients with complications of the flu.

"It's been very light," said Dr. Linda Butler, chief medical officer for UNC Rex hospital in Raleigh. "We've had just a few flu cases."

The same is true across town at WakeMed, said Dr. Chris DeRienzo, the chief medical officer there.

"Certainly the numbers are far lower than they typically are this time of year," DeRienzo said. "I think everybody's holding their breath a little bit."

Influenza season in North Carolina typically runs from October through April or May. Each season is different, but cases usually begin to grow in December and peak in January and February. The slow start bodes well for the coming weeks as hospitals struggle to keep up with the growing number of COVID-19 cases.

"The fact that our numbers with flu have been low so far has been helpful," said Katie Galbraith, president of Duke Regional Hospital. "I just hope it stays that way."

The milder flu season is not a big surprise, says Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state Secretary of Health and Human Services. The steps people are taking to avoid spreading the coronavirus — wearing masks, washing hands frequently and avoiding close contact with other people — also prevent spread of the flu virus, Cohen said.

Influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses that can cause similar symptoms, such as fever, head and body aches and persistent cough. Both are spread mainly through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

The reason COVID-19 is more prevalent than the flu is that the coronavirus is more contagious, Cohen said.

It's also more deadly. According to state Division of Public Health data, an average of 149 people died of the complications of the flu each year over the last decade in North Carolina, compared to more than 7,328 of COVID-19 since last spring.

"The proportion of what's happening with COVID is so much more than what we would have seen with flu," Cohen said. Even without a normal flu season, she added, "It's still on balance a very strange year."

Coronavirus replaced flu in Southern Hemisphere

The emergence of the coronavirus coincided with a sharp decrease in flu cases in the United States last spring, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percentage of people testing positive for the flu dropped 98% in March, April and May compared to the first few months of the flu season, according to the CDC.

The Southern Hemisphere, where June through August is typically the height of flu season, also saw very little this year, according to the CDC. Based on those trends, CDC researchers predicted in September that places that take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus "might have little influenza circulating during the upcoming 2020 — 21 Northern Hemisphere influenza season."

The lack of flu in the Southern Hemisphere last summer encourages WakeMed's DeRienzo. He struggles for words to describe what this winter would be like for hospitals if they had to deal with flu and coronavirus at the same time.

"Exceptionally challenging," he said. "To have the number of COVID patients we have in house now and an equal number of flu patients, we would be staring down the barrel of a really tough winter. We are staring down a hard enough winter with just COVID."

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