While COVID-19 activity surges to unprecedented levels in Clark County, another illness could complicate the county’s disease response systems this winter.
The flu is traditionally a main concern of Clark County Public Health, local clinics, hospitals and senior care facilities during fall and winter. This year it will be a secondary focus behind COVID-19, but it’s still a virus that has the ability to further jam hospitals and kill older populations.
Public Health and local hospitals are struggling to find the bandwidth for COVID-19, so an active flu season could completely overwhelm local hospitals and health care workers.
“I’m concerned we could have both of them circulating at the same time,” Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said.
So far, Clark County has minimal flu activity. The latest available data showed that Clark County registered zero positive tests out of 491 total tests for Nov. 8 through Nov. 14.
Only a handful of tests out of more than 1,000 total tests have returned positive in recent weeks. The county reaches active influenza season once it stays above 10 percent positive testing for two consecutive weeks.
Clark County did not enter active flu season until Jan. 20 last year.
Positive test rates are not always this low in November, but each flu season is different, Melnick said.
For example, the 2016-17 flu season started as early as Nov. 6, but the season before, it started on Jan. 17. Some seasons last longer than others. The 2016-17 season lasted 25 weeks, while the 2014-15 season lasted only 11 weeks.
That 2016-17 season was also the deadliest season in Clark County since 2014, killing 26 people and causing 20 senior care facility outbreaks. The 2014-15 season killed five people and caused seven outbreaks.
The most recent season, 2018-19, began on Jan. 20 and lasted 14 weeks. It had the highest peak positive test rate since 2014, at 44 percent, and killed four people, while causing 11 care facility outbreaks.
Physical distancing, decreased gathering and mask-wearing might help stem the spread of the flu, but it’s unknown how much of an impact those mitigation tactics will have.
If Clark County has minimal flu activity this winter, but extreme COVID-19 activity, there are explanations for that. COVID-19 is more contagious and deadly than the flu.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with COVID-19 are generally contagious for a longer period of time than those with the flu. COVID-19 has more super-spreading events. It can also take longer for someone to develop symptoms with COVID-19 after infection.
The ability to spread COVID-19 while asymptomatic or presymptomatic is one of the reasons it’s such a hard-to-control virus. In an update last month, the CDC said that people “who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others” are estimated to account for more than 50 percent of coronavirus transmissions.
Coronavirus has killed more than 260,000 Americans in less than a year. That’s about 20,000 more Americans than the previous six flu seasons combined.
As of Wednesday, Clark County has recorded 91 COVID-19 deaths since the virus was first discovered locally in March. In the past five flu seasons, Clark County has recorded 58 flu deaths.
Melnick said other factors also make COVID-19 more dangerous than the flu. There are proven, effective treatments for the flu, and there is a vaccine available to the public, whereas COVID-19 is still lacking those measures.
Local, state and national health officials have urged people to get vaccinated for the flu this year. It carries extra importance during a pandemic.
If vaccine uptake is good, and people follow the guidelines for COVID-19, influenza rates might be able to stay much lower than previous years, which will help Public Health and local medical systems.
“We need to do whatever we can to minimize flu,” Melnick said.