LEWISTON — There is one bit of good news among all the bad of the pandemic: Flu cases in Maine have dropped to a fraction of what they were a year ago.
At this time last year, 919 people were confirmed to have the flu statewide. This year that number is 47.
Maine hasn’t seen flu numbers this low since the 2015-16 flu season, when there were just 36 cases by the last week in December.
Experts say the precautions people are taking against COVID-19, including social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands, are likely causing the dramatic drop in flu cases. So, too, may be the fact that a lot of people got the flu vaccine this year.
“The low amount of influenza we are seeing in Maine is consistent with what the rest of the country is experiencing,” said Anna Krueger, a Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention epidemiologist who specializes in influenza reporting and analysis.
Last year was a particularly bad season for confirmed flu cases and for reports of influenza-like illnesses in Maine and nationally. There has been some question whether flu-like illnesses were actually an early emergence of COVID-19.
Androscoggin County had 47 flu cases this time last year but has had just five so far this season. Oxford County had 26 cases but has just one this season. Franklin had 31 last year and has had none so far this season.
Cumberland County had 100 cases this time last year. It has only 22 cases now.
By this time last year, every county had confirmed cases of the flu. So far this year, seven counties have had none.
By the end of last December, 56 people had been hospitalized and four people had died from the flu. No one in Maine has been hospitalized and no one has died from the flu so far this season.
Even compared to other years, Maine’s flu cases are down substantially. By the last week of December 2018, Maine had 313 cases. By the last week of December 2017, it had 546.
Flu season typically starts in October and can run into May. Flu cases usually peak between December and February, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Last year, Maine ended the season with more than 10,000 confirmed cases of the flu. In 2015-16, when Maine saw very low numbers by December, the state ended up with less than 2,400 cases. Still, it is unclear whether flu numbers will stay low this season.
“The type of influenza and the timing of influenza circulation varies each year. It is therefore difficult to predict when and how severe the influenza season will be,” Krueger said. “Though we are seeing low amounts of circulating influenza right now, it is still possible that this will increase in the coming months.”
Experts say people who haven’t gotten their flu shot yet should still consider it.
“It protects you and the people around you,” John Alexander, chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston, said. “It also helps the health care system by reducing the possibility of an influx of flu patients when it is fighting the coronavirus.”
Send questions/comments to the editors.