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Wisconsin reported drastic drop in flu cases; health professionals prep for next flu season

Posted at 6:44 PM, Jun 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-17 12:50:41-04

Flu cases in Wisconsin were so low this past season that state health officials described it as the season that did not happen.

When TMJ4 News visited Children's Wisconsin in January 2020, they had just seen a record number of hospital visits during the flu season. Doctors reported a lot of flu cases, respiratory illnesses, fever, along with cough and cold symptoms.

Dr. Michael Meyer, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Children's Wisconsin, said that year they needed to add six more ICU beds.

This past flu season was a drastically different story.

"In pediatrics, winter is our busiest season when it comes to viral infections. This past year, the pandemic, we have seen almost nothing," Dr. Meyer said.

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Children's Wisconsin reported in 2019, 144 kids were hospitalized for influenza and 200 for respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. In 2020, those numbers were 91 and 140 respectively. In 2021 so far, they have not had any kids hospitalized for influenza while one was admitted for RSV.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported despite more testing, that trend was seen across the state.

"For comparison sake, last year we had about 35,000 cases of influenza that were confirmed. This year we have 81. I can with somewhat self-assurance tell you a lot of those 81 are probably false positives and this is a trend that we’ve been seeing throughout the country. It’s not just Wisconsin," said Thomas Haupt, influenza surveillance coordinator for Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

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Haupt also noted on average, Wisconsin will see about 4,500 flu-related hospitalizations per year. This year, DHS reported 17 hospitalizations with no one under the age of 18.

Health professionals believe social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing played a big role.

Haupt said he believes the flu vaccine was also a good match, but there were so few flu cases they did not have enough specimens to run calculations, which is unusual.

Looking ahead, Dr. Meyer said healthcare professionals are already preparing for winter, knowing the mandates and restrictions communities had during the pandemic will not be in place.

"It is very reasonable to think that we are going to have a very significant influenza season," Dr. Meyer said.

Both Meyer and Haupt noted historically, flu vaccinations do not reach the needed levels for immunity across the community. They hope the pandemic has shown the importance of vaccines.

Right before the pandemic, Alicia Pettway's then 2-month old Neveah had to be airlifted to Children's Wisconsin with a severe case of RSV.

"During that time, I was really scared. I thought that my child was going to pass away because she had to be intubated, having RSV. It was really bad. She was intubated for two to three weeks and I couldn't hold her," Pettway recalled.

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These days Neveah is feeling better, and her mom said she is sassy as ever.

Alicia stressed that while the pandemic may be easing up, it is critical people continue to practice good hygiene and stay away from others when they are not feeling well.

"I never expected it to happen to my child, so I want everybody to take the precautions that they need to," Pettway said.

"We have learned some very valuable lessons that we need to continue implementing for the overall health and safety of our children," said Dr. Meyer.

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