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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

With masks off, colds and flu make return in B-N

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Darron Cummings
/
AP

Since the masks came off most of society, a lot of people have been coughing, sneezing and getting aches and fever. And that's not counting those who get COVID-19.

Last year, flu was almost non-existent. Lockdowns, masks, and other pandemic precautions meant people didn't make each other sick. Carle Health family practice physician Dr. Stephen Hill said this year is not quite back to normal. But there were a lot of flu cases in Bloomington-Normal.

"I think this particular flu season has been a bit more like what we saw prior to the pandemic. Just personally what I've seen, maybe a little bit less versus before, but pretty similar," said Hill.

Flu peaked in the Twin Cities around the turn of the year, according to OSF family practice Dr. Richard Ginnetti.

"There were some times when you would walk in our ERs and half the people you see were positive. It just hit the community all at once. And that's what we were seeing here a few months ago," he said.

Statewide, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reported recent numbers are declining. But many regions of the country report the flu has lingered longer and there has been a late season wave of cases. And Ginnetti said the flu certainly isn't gone in central Illinois.

"There are still active case. I checked with our prompt care director yesterday. They're seeing a lot of flu right now, a ton of it. I saw a patient yesterday who was positive for COVID and positive for flu. Flu is out there," he said.

Carle Health also has reported primary and convenient care offices and emergency departments are seeing more cases in the last several weeks.

There are several reasons the flu came back this winter, even though a lot of people were still masking during the first quarter of the year. Many eased off and let their guard down. And this year's flu vaccine was not so great. The Centers for Disease Control said the strains of virus in the vaccine didn't match what's circulating in the wild.

This year, flu shots were only 16% effective at reducing a person's chance of getting a mild or moderate infection. In some years, that's 50% to 60%.

Another factor, Ginnetti said, is that fewer people got flu shots last October and November than before the pandemic.

Ginnetti said OSF was down 10% in vaccinations system-wide. The OSF system put more than 100,000 flu shots in the arms of people in the region. He said they were down about 15,000 for Bloomington-Normal, estimating the drop in OSF vaccinations at 1,500. And that can quickly boost cases.

"You look at a vector. Someone gets it and that can spread to somebody else, family members, etc. It doesn't take much with these highly communicable illnesses," said Ginnetti.

It's not just the flu. Carle Health's Hill said a lot of people are getting their first sneezy-drippy-stuffy head coughing jags in two years.

"We're seeing those upper respiratory infections, colds coming back around in the last month or two," said Hill.

If you've been vaccinated for the coronavirus and get COVID-19, your symptoms might not be that bad. And that can make it difficult for people to tell exactly which bug du jour they have. Ginnetti said that has real-world implications, too. Even if you think it's just a cold, he said you should test for COVID.

"You don't want to miss COVID and spread that around if we can get you isolated a little bit," he said.

Hospitals often test for both COVID and the flu at the same time. This raises the question of whether that has increased testing for influenza compared with standard years and registering cases that would have slipped by in other years when flu testing is less robust.

Ginnetti doesn't think so, saying the the resurgence of flu is because of changes in human behavior, not a testing artifact. And human behavior cuts both ways. Not everyone has gone back to the status quo before the pandemic.

Hill said some people have retained their masks and good habits. "Just being mindful, practicing good hand hygiene, thinking about what's going on in your community. If you need a mask, if you're sick, staying at home, making sure you're covering your mouth with any coughing, those things that we encourage you to do anyway," he said.

Virologists already are looking at illnesses in pig herds in China, the human flu experience in the southern hemisphere and other predictors to gauge what strains of influenza to prepare for in the fall vaccine. Ginnetti said next year who knows how bad the flu will be.

"This is not an exact science. We're trying to guess ahead of time what it's going to be in six month," he said. "There's a possibility we could miss it. Sometimes, we think we have it and we think it's gonna be H1N1 for example and it turns out it's not, it's another variant that is the primary one."

Ginnetti said people may continue to do a better job at respiratory protection because of lingering habits created during the pandemic.

"I sure hope so. I think it's been a learning environment. I think, the kids really implanted. I have grandchildren. It's really implanted how they look at putting masks on and washing their hands. Maybe some of these good habits will persist and parents will try to be good examples for kids. It surely can help us during our respiratory illness season," he said.

It's also human nature to be complacent. Memories fade. Old habits return. Hill said it's hard to say whether people will get religion and keep masks around forever for some situations, or say they really want to go back to normal.

"I think it's a mixture of both. You know, there's some folks that are very much in favor of some of those measures, and there's others that it was a struggle and they're not really interested in those measures," said Hill.

And there's one more thing. There are other kinds of bugs popping up in central Illinois, this spring as well — stomach viruses and noroviruses. So don't toss your mask just yet, said Ginnetti and Hill.

And wash your hands.

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