Although Eastern Kentucky has previously seen busy flu seasons, ongoing measures to prevent COVID-19 this year have likely led to a significant decline in new flu cases across the region.
During the 2020-21 influenza season, Pike County has seen the highest number of lab-confirmed cases across the Eastern Kentucky region, as well as statewide. As of Feb. 12, Pike County has seen only 36 lab-confirmed flu cases for the entire season so far, with only one new case being reported that week.
In comparison, Pike County saw 649 lab-confirmed flu cases at that same time during the 2019-20 flu season. Kentucky’s influenza season takes place from September to May every year.
“We are seeing some influenza cases, but it’s not as predominant as it was last year,” said Pike County Public Health Director Tammy Riley. “Across the state, we’re seeing a significant difference in influenza cases this year as compared to last year.”
Surrounding counties in Eastern Kentucky have seen even smaller numbers of lab-confirmed flu cases than that of Pike County so far this season, including Perry (15), Floyd (10), Knott (nine), Leslie (nine), Letcher (four) and Breathitt (three).
Johnson County and Wolfe County have each seen two cases so far this season, and Harlan County and Bell County have each seen one case.
The state of Kentucky, as a whole, has seen a noticeably slower flu season this year as compared to last year. Statewide, there have been 153 total lab-confirmed cases of the flu so far. Jefferson County, who normally leads the state, has only seen 17 cases so far this season, which is the second-highest total number statewide. The Kentucky Department for Public Health reported that, as of the week of Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, every county in Kentucky was seeing a plateau in the number of new flu cases, except for Jefferson County.
This season’s case numbers are vastly lower than during the 2019-20 influenza season. By the end of the season in May, there were more than 27,000 lab-confirmed flu cases across the state. More than 5,500 cases were reported in counties across Eastern Kentucky, including Breathitt, Floyd, Johnson, Knott, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Owsley, Perry, Pike and Wolfe, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health.
Riley said that she believes the lower numbers of flu cases are an indirect result of the ongoing prevention measures that counties and the state have taken this past year to combat the spread of COVID-19. Every community has a different approach or plan in place to help promote early COVID-19 mitigation measures, she said, and Pike County’s approach is the 5-C Plan, which refers to Calm, Clean, Cover, Contain and Civic Duty — the necessary steps for taking precautions against the virus and protecting the community.
Despite these different approaches, Riley explained, the advice that health officials have continued to promote throughout the past year to help limit the spread of COVID-19 is similar to the advice that they typically give to help limit the spread of the flu every year.
“Regardless of how you describe the approach or the plan, it’s pretty much the same across the country. Public health officials are asking individuals to social distance, frequently hand-wash and cover their faces when interacting with others,” Riley said. “The advice is the same, but that early-on mitigation strategy — the 5-C Plan, which is the early mitigation approach in Pike County — is actually very similar to what we’ve always asked as far as washing our hands. Normally, we would say cough and sneeze into your elbow or into a tissue. I think the compliance in trying to mitigate COVID-19 in the communities has helped decrease the spread of influenza.”
Although flu cases are lower this year, the public should still take precautions against it. Primarily, vaccine experts recommend that everyone 6 months old or older should receive the annual flu vaccine. While vaccination against the flu is recommended for everyone, it is especially important for those who are considered high risk for serious flu-related complications or those who live with or care for people at high risk.
In addition, everyone is recommended to wash their hands with soap and water for 15-20 seconds or use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers. They should avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth, and avoid close contact with people who are sick. When a person is sick, they should keep distance from others and stay home from work, school and errands, if possible, in order to protect others from contracting the illness, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health.