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Masks, distancing keep flu cases, deaths low across Nebraska

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 6:19 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Normally this time of year, Nebraska hospitals and doctors would be starting to breathe a sigh of relief as a typically busy flu season came to an end.

But this year that’s not the case for many Lincoln doctors. One of them is Dr. Brandon Webb who said he’s seen just one flu case this year.

“Normally we’d be seeing ten cases a day at least and surges at certain points,” Webb said.

His situation isn’t unique. Dr. Mark Butler said he hasn’t even seen one case of the flu.

“It’s been nonexistent,” Butler said.

10/11 NOW requested flu numbers from the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department for the last five years. There were only 21 cases of the flu reported this season, compared to more than 1,700 the year before. In fact, from 2016 to 2020 there were at least 1,110 flu cases a season.

COVID-19 precautions keep flu numbers low
COVID-19 precautions keep flu numbers low(KOLN)

Doctors said the reason is clear.

“Face masks and hand washing and distancing,” Webb said. “The limiting of schools and some businesses to a certain extent. We just don’t have as many people spreading things.”

It’s a similar trend across the state. There were 394 cases of the flu reported in Nebraska from September to April. There were around 19,000 flu cases at the same time last year. This isn’t for lack of testing, Nebraska labs have processed 76,000 flu tests this year.

The result of this has been lower hospitalizations, with flu admissions making up less than 4 percent of all admissions last month.

“I’m hoping we’ve destigmatized the idea of wearing a mask,” Butler said. “It works and now we don’t feel like hypochondriacs. We can wear it and we can prevent epidemics and keep hospitals from getting flooded every year and going on diversion.”

It’s also saved lives.

Last year there were 44 flu deaths across the state. Nobody has died from the flu so far this year.

“If we can prevent that it could be a silver lining to this whole COVID thing,” Dr. Butler said.

The flu isn’t the only illness doctors have seen less of.

“I’ve had less bronchitis, sinus infections, colds,” Dr. Webb said. “For the same reason, transmission droplets is how you get those things so you put those barriers in place and it spreads less.”

They’re hoping these are lessons we can all learn about disease prevention.

“In Japan, for example, it’s not uncommon if someone wakes up with a runny nose that they’ll wear a mask to work,” Dr. Webb said. “People will notice and appreciate that you’re being polite and don’t want to give that illness to them.”

While flu season is typically over at this time of year, there is some concern about a delayed flu season as masks come off. Doctors said this isn’t likely but they’re keeping an eye out and keeping tests available in case.

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