Inside the Numbers: Tracking flu season alongside COVID-19 in Virginia

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The 2019-2020 flu season in Virginia has been an outlier in terms of the late peak, and the sudden almost complete endpoint.

The Virginia Department of Health reported two deaths to flu and pneumonia on its July 4 Weekly Influenza Activity Report, the most recent week for which data is available at this writing.

Two – emphasis, two.

This after the VDH reported 30 deaths in its June 27 report.

The previous weekly low in the past six years was the week of Aug. 17, 2019, when there were a reported 33 flu/pneumonia deaths in Virginia.

That week was the only one dating back to 2014, prior to the previous two, in which there were less than 50 reported flu/pneumonia deaths in Virginia.

Late peak

Defining “peak” as the highest number of weekly deaths, the latest peak in terms of deaths from flu and pneumonia came in the 2015-2016 flu season, which had a March 26 peak.

There were two other years with peaks in March – 2016-2017 (March 4) and 2018-2019 (March 16).

The 2019-2020 season had its peak in terms of death from flu and pneumonia in the week ending May 2, with 180 reported deaths.

‘Seasonal’ flu?

One thing to take away from this deep dive into the numbers is the notion that flu is seasonal makes it seem like there’s a flu season, running roughly from November to March, and then it goes away until next year, and that’s not the way things work at all.

Between 2014-2019, weekly flu/pneumonia deaths ranged from that one-week low of 33 in August 2019 to a high of 292 recorded the week of Jan. 17, 2015.

The average weekly flu/pneumonia death toll between 2014-2019 was 99.5.

(Note: the VDH numbers for the 2014-2015 season only cover 39 weeks of that flu season).

And even in the summer, which is considered outside what we view as flu season, the average weekly flu/pneumonia death toll between 2014-2019 was 75.2.

Having a week in which we see two reported deaths from flu and pneumonia, then, is quite unusual.

Cumulative numbers

Virginia averaged 4,914 flu/pneumonia deaths per year between 2014-2019.

The 2019-2020 flu season stands at 4,006 deaths from flu and pneumonia being reported.

Add in the 2,007 deaths from COVID-19 as of today’s accounting from VDH, and you get 6,013.

That would run 22.3 percent above the average death toll from the 2014-2019 flu seasons.

Takeaways

One thing to think through with the late peak to the 2019-2020 flu season is the impact of stay-at-home order related to COVID-19.

It stands to reason that the effort to limit transmission of the COVID-19 virus would also have an impact on the transmission of flu.

It is significant that there was still a rather high peak in flu/pneumonia deaths in early May, and as noted yesterday, the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 and from flu/pneumonia are running close to 1:1.

Another item that stands out in the numbers is the number two – the two flu/pneumonia deaths reported the week of July 4.

Could this be an early sign that the double-whammy effect of COVID-19 and flu season is starting to run out of vulnerable populations (residents of nursing homes, people who are 80+)?

It’s worth watching.

Story by Chris Graham


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