TAHLEQUAH – Ongoing COVID-19 prevention efforts helped dramatically lessen the flu’s grip on the Cherokee Nation this season, according to the tribe’s Public Health medical director.

“The flu has been very gracious to us this year,” Dr. David Gahn recently told tribal leaders. “It really hasn’t had a huge impact on our health care delivery system. Since Sept. 1 of last year, we’ve had 161 people hospitalized with influenza compared to almost 19,000 for COVID-19.”

Eight flu-associated deaths have been reported this season within the CN. In contrast, the 2019-20 season ended with 85, along with more than 3,500 hospitalizations. The two previous seasons also saw thousands of flu cases and even more deaths – 135 and 288.

“The measures we’ve taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the flu,” Gahn said, “and likewise, the human body rarely will be infected with two different viruses at the same time.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also reporting that seasonal influenza nationally is drastically lower than usual. In a five-month period that ended Feb. 27, the CDC identified 1,543 positive influenza cases across the country. The 2019-20 flu season, “moderate” according to the CDC, was associated with 38 million illnesses, 18 million medical visits, 405,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths.

“Though caused by a different virus from the one that causes COVID-19, the flu is also a respiratory viral disease, so everything we are doing to slow transmission of COVID-19 should also reduce transmission of flu,” Dr. Eili Klein with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine stated in a news release.

Flu season typically peaks between December and February, according to the CDC, which this season encouraged early flu shots in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the CN’s 14-county reservation, dozens of vaccination clinics have been held at community buildings, local businesses, churches, town halls and health centers.

Nationally, more than 198 million flu vaccines have been distributed. According to the Associated Press, the flu “has virtually disappeared from the U.S.,” with reports coming in at far lower levels than anything seen in decades.

“Experts say that measures put in place to fend off the coronavirus – mask wearing, social distancing and virtual schooling – were a big factor in preventing a ‘twindemic’ of flu and COVID-19,” an AP report states. “A push to get more people vaccinated against flu probably helped, too, as did fewer people traveling, they say.”