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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 5, 2021

Experts credit COVID-19 response for sharp decline in flu

If Your Time is short

  • The number of people testing positive for influenza this season is down dramatically from last season.

  • Experts cite shutdowns, social distancing and other measures being taken in response to COVID-19.

This headline on an article widely shared on Facebook seemed to drip with sarcasm:

"A Miracle! Only 23 Americans Tested Positive for Flu Last Week Compared to 14,657 Cases Reported Last Year at Same Time."

The Jan. 31 article from Gateway Pundit, a conservative website, started by asking: "Do you ever get the feeling you’re being lied to?" Then it claimed that the number of COVID-19 deaths has been "over-inflated," and it questioned whether the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using "statistical tricks" in reporting flu cases.

A post sharing the article was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

We’ve examined and debunked several claims suggesting there have been intentional overcounts of  COVID-19 cases, and we thought this claim about flu cases deserved a closer look.

Public health experts see a connection between the COVID-19 and flu case numbers, but not the one the article implies.

Flu cases way down this year

First the numbers, according to a CDC report on Jan. 16, 2021:

For the week ended Jan. 16, of the 21,244 flu tests tracked by the CDC, 23 specimens, or 0.1%, tested positive. For the season to that point — 40 weeks, dating back to Sept. 27 — there were 1,159 positive specimens, or 0.2% of the total tested. 

"Flu activity is unusually low at this time but may increase in the coming months," the CDC said in the report.

More Week 2 results were released Feb. 5. The new totals show 62 of 38,572 specimens, or 0.16%, tested positive for flu.

The headline we’re checking appears to take its second number from a different source: an article on Weather.com. That article compared the 23 cases to 14,657 positive flu tests — a rate of 29.6% — in Week 7 of the 2019-20 flu season.

That isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison; it compares a week in 2020-21 with a different week in the 2019-20 season. 

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But a direct comparison shows flu cases are down dramatically.

During Week 2 of the 2019-20 flu season, 9,277 of the 40,451 specimens were positive for influenza, or 22.9%, according to the CDC. 

Decrease linked to COVID response

"We are seeing a lot less influenza activity compared to previous seasons. This does also extend to other respiratory viruses that are usually up during this time of the year," said Dr. Werner Bischoff, medical director of Infection Prevention and Health System Epidemiology at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. 

There’s no definitive data yet to explain the drop, but Bischoff and other experts say they suspect that precautions related to the coronavirus, along with high rates of flu vaccination, are helping to limit the spread of the flu.

"My take, and this is not based on any evidence yet, is that the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions with masking, social distancing and frequent hand hygiene really cut down on transmission of these viruses," Bischoff said. "Influenza and most other respiratory viruses are spread by droplets. This combined with the seasonal influenza vaccine may have reduced the spread in the community to such a degree that the viruses have not been able to establish themselves to reach the usual numbers."

A similar take was relayed in the Weather.com article that Gateway Pundit cited. 

Weather.com included an excerpt from a Washington Post news story that said the rates of influenza A and influenza B, as well as other viruses, are at record lows, with experts theorizing that is largely due to the global shutdowns, mask wearing and other health protocols aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

"It is likely that" COVID-19 mitigation measures have had an impact on influenza," said CDC spokesperson RED Denty. "Measures, including extensive reductions in global travel, teleworking, school closures, social distancing and face mask use may have played a role."

Other experts have also cited COVID-19 social distancing efforts, including children staying home from school, as well as high rates of influenza vaccinations.

Our ruling

A headline from an article widely shared on Facebook claimed: "A Miracle! Only 23 Americans Tested Positive for Flu Last Week Compared to 14,657 Cases Reported Last Year at Same Time." The article cites this drop to suggest that health officials have improperly inflated the number of COVID-19 cases.

Flu cases are down dramatically. The CDC reported that only 62 of 38,572 specimens tested positive for influenza for the week ended Jan. 16, 2021. A year earlier, the figure was 9,277. 

Public health experts say they believe the drop is due not to a miracle or statistical tricks, but largely to social distancing and other precautions being used in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

We rate the claim Half True.

Our Sources

Gateway Pundit, "A Miracle! Only 23 Americans Tested Positive for Flu Last Week Compared to 14,657 Cases Reported Last Year at Same Time," Jan. 31, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "FluView Summary ending on January 16, 2021," Jan. 22, 2021

Email, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson RED Denty, Feb. 4, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Virologic Surveillance for Week 7 of the 2019-2020 flu season, accessed Feb. 4, 2021 

Weather.com, "Flu Cases Remain Almost Non-Existent in the U.S. This Year," Jan. 28, 2021

Email, Dr. Werner Bischoff, professor, Internal Medicine/Section on Infectious Diseases and medical director, Infection Prevention and Health System Epidemiology, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Feb. 4, 2021

Today.com, "Flu activity is 'unusually low' in the US: Can we keep it going in future years?", Jan. 27, 2021

USA Today, "Record low flu cases show how COVID-19 is more contagious and 'less forgiving,' experts say," Jan. 11, 2021

Healthline, "While COVID-19 is Raging, Flu Cases Remain Unusually Low," Jan. 7, 2021

Washington Post, "Coronavirus shutdowns have quashed nearly all other common viruses. But scientists say a rebound is coming," Jan. 12, 2021

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Experts credit COVID-19 response for sharp decline in flu

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