MANKATO — Area clinics are still testing for influenza this season, but few cases are being identified.

It makes for a helpfully mild season so far as clinics deal with COVID-19, which also is a respiratory illness.

Statewide numbers tell the same story with only one influenza death since the 2020-2021 season started in October, according to the Minnesota Department of Health’s latest flu surveillance report.

A couple of factors could be contributing to the mild season, said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.

“We think it’s a combination of things,” she said. “We put out the messaging for people to get influenza vaccines, but really the bigger part is a lot of the things we’ve been having people do to reduce COVID-19 transmission also work for other respiratory viruses.”

Johnson was among the doctors stressing the importance of the flu vaccine before the season started. There was a concerted push to do so among the medical community as a way to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed by COVID and flu cases.

More people social distancing, hand washing, masking and staying home when sick than in previous years seems to have made a difference. All came about as ways to limit the spread of COVID.

The mild start to the 2020-2021 season matches the mild end to the previous season, which coincided with when COVID restrictions took effect. Influenza hospitalizations essentially dropped off a cliff statewide after Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order in late March.

Differentiating influenza symptoms from COVID symptoms is a challenge for health care professionals. Coughs and fevers are common symptoms for both.

Key differences can help nurses recommend what tests people should receive. Shortness of breath is more of a COVID symptom, while headaches are more a sign of influenza, Johnson said.

Patients are regularly being screened for both illnesses, she added.

“Quite often a lot of our patients are needing both tests because there’s a lot of overlap in the symptoms,” she said.

Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato reported one positive influenza test out of 1,421 tests between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, a positivity rate of .07%. Flu season severity varies greatly year to year, but this season’s pace at Mayo in Mankato is a far cry from the 310 total flu cases in the 2018-2019 season and 719 cases in the 2019-2020 season.

Mankato Clinic is showing similarly low numbers for flu cases so far. They had four positives between Oct. 1 and Jan. 5, compared to 280 positives during the same timeframe in 2019-2020, according to Mankato Clinic communication coordinator Marie Wood.

There have been far fewer influenza tests at Mankato Clinic this season compared to the previous season, dropping from 1,372 to to 248. The rate of positives, however, is lower this season as well.

Mankato Clinic’s rate of positive influenza tests was 20.4% up to this point in the 2019-2020 season. In 2020-2021, the rate of positives is 1.6%.

The numbers suggest far fewer people are seeking influenza tests this season. And the ones who do aren’t testing positive as much as previous seasons.

Meanwhile, 8.2% of COVID tests came back positive in south-central Minnesota counties between Sept. 30 and Jan. 6.

Flu seasons have historically started to ramp up anywhere between late November and January. A ramp-up later this month wouldn’t be too surprising, especially as restrictions loosen in Minnesota.

If people continue to use mitigation strategies, though, hopefully the mild season will continue, Johnson said.

“The hand washing, the social distancing — things we know can help — will hopefully keep the influenza season in check,” she said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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