New health habits yield added bonus: fewer flu fatalities

All of our education and practice about how to guard against COVID-19 has created a remarkable offshoot: the U.S. death rate from influenza has dropped considerably.



May 26, 2021 - 8:33 AM

Chinese tourists wearing protective masks pray at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

All of our education and practice about how to guard against COVID-19 has created a remarkable offshoot: the U.S. death rate from influenza has dropped considerably.

For the 2019-20 flu season, U.S. fatalities were approximately 24,000. Almost six months into 2021, only 450 have died from the flu. 

Health experts credit our newfound habits of frequent hand-washing, wearing face masks and staying away from others when feeling under the weather, for the sunny outcomes.

In truth, they wish we’d hang on to these practices, though our culture and workplaces make that unlikely. 

At the very least, we should keep up the hand-washing habit.

FOR DECADES,  Asians have routinely worn face masks. Initially, they donned the masks as a social courtesy when feeling a sore throat or case of the sniffles. 

Masks are most effective for not spreading germs, as opposed to guarding against germs.

Then in the 1950s when post-war industrialization led to increased air pollution, many made the face mask a part of their everyday wardrobe.

The SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, outbreak in 2002 cemented the habit. Like COVID-19, SARS was spread through respiratory droplets. Only 774 deaths resulted from the virus, mostly confined to Asia.

Unlike COVID-19, SARS was easily identifiable because of its severe and immediate symptoms, making it easier to bring under control through contact tracing.

UNFORTUNATELY, many Americans do not take kindly to wearing face masks and the habit is not likely to catch on.

In fact, some could likely face a backlash if they continue the habit, it’s become so politically divisive. Which is really a shame.

Say you have a cold and regard it as your civic duty to prevent others from getting it. Do you wear a mask and run the risk of being ostracized? 

And about that handshake. A virtual germ factory.

The elbow bump is way safer.  

As for busses on the cheek, we could only wish that were an endangered American habit.

THE BIGGEST challenge to adopting healthier habits is changing our mindset that we are “warriors” for going to  work, school or church when we’re sick.

As we’ve learned with the coronavirus, one person’s reaction may be very different from another’s, and the same is true for exposing others to the flu or colds and coughs.

Taking it one step further, employees must be able to feel confident their jobs are not threatened by requesting sick days for either themselves or family members. Today, almost one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, almost 34 million, lack paid sick leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Major employers could go a long way in protecting their workforce — and their communities — by assuring employees they won’t be docked  for staying home because they are ill.

As increased vaccines allow us to safely emerge from this once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, it’s imperative we learn to take community health more seriously and recognize our personal responsibilities in keeping not only ourselves safe, but others as well.