An analysis presented Friday at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition found that widespread use of facemasks and social distancing to control COVID-19 cut the spread of flu among children by 99 percent in the 2020-21 winter season in northern Ohio – similar to what happened in the rest of the country.
People who practised frequent hand hygiene and were able to self-isolate during the peak of the pandemic in the United States also contributed to the containment of the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, according to the researchers.
Before COVID-19, the peak incidence of the influenza A virus among children in the area surrounding Akron Children’s Hospital, where the research was conducted, occurred in February during both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 flu seasons.
In February 2019, 41% of nose and throat swab samples tested came back positive for the virus, while in February 2020, 24% came back positive, the data showed.
However, during the 2020-21 winter season, only two isolated cases of Influenza B virus and no cases of Influenza A virus were detected among Akron Children’s patients, a finding that is similar to what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that much of the United States experienced.
“Numbers don’t lie,” co-author Dr. Osama El-Assal said in a press release.
“Face masking, and proper hygiene and isolation can be effective means to protect the vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and young children during the respiratory virus season,” said El-Assal, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Akron Children’s Hospital.
In July, the CDC reported that cases of the flu and other viruses had reached “historic lows” in 2020-21, likely due to COVID-19 measures and restrictions. This included positive flu test rates dropping to well under 1% from the 25% or so that is historically expected.
Similarly, positive tests for RSV dropped to between 1% and 2% from a range of 3% to 17% in the previous four years, the agency reported.
For this study, El-Assai and his colleagues tracked prevalence of the flu and RSV, which causes the common cold, among patients at Akron Children’s from October 2018 through April of this year.
In addition to dramatic declines in flu cases, the peak in spread of RSV for the 2018-19 winter season occurred in December 2018, when nearly 29% of samples tested came back positive, the data showed.
Similarly, December 2019 was the peak of the 2019-20 season for RSV, when nearly 25% of the nose and throat samples tested came back positive for the virus.
However, after social distancing measures were implemented in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, none of the samples tested came back positive for RSV.
This was true until March 14, when the first RSV case was detected among Akron Children’s patients, which coincided with the relaxation of social distancing measures in the area, the researchers said.
Masking and social distancing “can be a simple non-medicinal way to save lives,” El-Assai said.