Dr. Suman Radhakrishna usually sees about 10 cases of whooping cough a year from her downtown Los Angeles practice. This year, she’s seen none.
“Most of the respiratory illnesses are down,” said Radhakrishna, a board member with the Infectious Disease Association of California. Influenza season almost petered out in March, she said, and the bugs that cause common colds in April and May — such as the rhinovirus or adenovirus — also didn’t appear as normal.
“Because remember, the things that we’re telling people to do with COVID are, ‘Wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and mouth, and stay six feet away…’ a lot of these infections are transmitted by droplets.”
It’s too early to know for sure if measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 have brought down the number of other respiratory illnesses this year.
Radhakrishna says the lower numbers of respiratory patients she’s seen could in part be because fewer people are seeking care, for fear of catching COVID-19 in medical offices.
A tally of the whooping cough cases (clinically known as pertussis) as of the middle of July of this year suggests the number of California infections is less than a third of what they were around the same time last year. But this year’s numbers are preliminary, and it’s not clear if the state’s numbers are accurate in light of recent COVID-19 data problems, or if local public health departments have been able to keep accurate counts of all infectious diseases.
But California public health officials say “it’s likely” social distancing and other precautions are reducing the transmission of other illnesses like whooping cough, and federal health experts agree.
“It would make sense to see fewer reported pertussis cases to-date in 2020 compared to 2019, since many of the cases reported in the United States have occurred in school-age children who finished out the last few months of their school year at home,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to a CapRadio inquiry about the whooping cough numbers.
Radhakrishna agrees that the incidence of pertussis could have been reduced this year because there has been less physical interaction that gives way to illness; kids haven’t been at school, and adults have been working at home.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, says the nature of the flu season this year — both in the U.S. and worldwide — suggests how social distancing may be shaping other diseases.
“Our own flu season ended pretty abruptly,” said Adalja, adding that “in the Southern Hemisphere where the flu season is opposite ours ... they’re not having a very strong flu season.”
But Adalja says we won’t know all the ways the pandemic has affected society’s health overall until the dust settles with COVID-19.
“While you may see decreases in certain diseases like pertussis, and trauma-related illnesses, you might see increases in other health problems such as alcohol abuse or opioid abuse, or depression,” he said.
While it’s too early to know if COVID-19 precautions have already brought down rates of other viral or bacterial infections, physicians say going forward, there are safety measures that can help reduce both the new coronavirus and the common cold.
Mask-wearing is one example.
“If we can acclimate to (or if we are required to) wear masks as we enter cold and flu season, we do then have a real opportunity to begin to lower and then eliminate Covid, while at the same time, also controlling potential flu and cold spread,” said California Primary Care Association’s chief medical officer Dr. Mike Witte in a statement to CapRadio.
Adalja said widespread adoption of the flu shot now can help hospitals stay focused on COVID-19 in the fall, rather than fighting severe influenza cases.
Similarly, Radhakrishna and other physicians urge people to keep up with other routine vaccinations during the pandemic, to avoid a surge of illnesses such as whooping cough or measles down the road.
“When you have not completed the entire whooping cough vaccination series, the measles series, and the kids have grown up and now they’re 10 or 11… and then all of a sudden you start seeing measles … that is worrisome, ” said Radhakrishna.
In mid-May, the California Department of Public Health raised alarm over kids missing routine vaccinations. Similarly, the CDC says the pandemic has caused “delays and decreases” in the number of kids getting immunizations, which is “dangerous.”
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