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Why Tennessee is experiencing such a mild flu season

Doctors in North America paid close attention when countries in the Southern Hemisphere experienced their flu seasons.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With the spotlight on COVID-19, some of you may be wondering, What happened to the flu? 

"We are definitely seeing influenza, but we do not appear yet to be having as rough a time with it as we have in recent years," said Dr. David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Aronoff said the currently mild flu season didn't come as a surprise. Doctors often look to countries in the Southern Hemisphere to predict what the flu season will look like in our area. 

 "They were in their winter, and they were already going through their influenza season and dealing with COVID-19. It became pretty clear that influenza season was not very bad in the Southern Hemisphere," Aronoff said. 

There are several factors that could account for the low numbers. Primary care physician Dr. Justin Jenkins at Rocky Hill Family Physicians said the hygiene habits people have picked up because of the pandemic are making a difference.

"The flu virus can be transmitted essentially from anything that can come out of your face. So, lo and behold, when we begin to wear masks, when we begin to wash our hands, when we begin to keep ourselves physically distant from each other, the chances of that virus spreading to other people just mechanically becomes less," Jenkins said.

A record number of people also rolled up their sleeves to get a flu vaccine this year -- more than 128 million nationwide as of Dec. 4, according to the CDC.

While the symptoms can sometimes be similar, both doctors say the viruses are vastly different.

"Tests for influenza will not be cross-reacting with the virus that causes COVID-19. And, the reverse is true. Testing for SARS-CoV-2 will not accidentally pick up somebody with influenza. The viruses are really quite different. It really is apples and oranges, or maybe apples and elephants, in terms of just how different they are," Aronoff said. 

While the flu numbers are low compared to years past, flu season can extend past February, so Jenkins encourages patients to get a flu shot if they haven't done so yet.