During any typical year, Missouri would be in the midst of flu season right about now. However, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic makes this season far from typical.
Local hospital officials said taking precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such as wearing masks and washing hands, has also slowed the spread of seasonal influenza.
"We have seen a decline in admissions due to COVID-19 since our peak in mid-November," said Lindsay Huhman, Capital Region Medical Center's director of public relations and marketing. "However, we still have a census of 15-20 COVID-19 patients daily."
Mike Hyde, chief nursing officer at St. Mary's Hospital, said numbers and conditions at his workplace reflect those at CRMC.
"This influenza season has been relatively mild compared to other flu seasons. We believe COVID-19 precautions, such as social distancing and masking, have had a positive impact on decreasing the spread of influenza as well."
Influenza is a virus-caused contagious respiratory illness that spreads across the United States almost every winter.
COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and can cause more serious illnesses in some people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis," according to the CDC website.
COVID-19 and the flu can have varying degrees of symptoms, ranging from no symptoms to severe illnesses.
Common symptoms the two share include fever or feeling feverish, cough, shortness of breath (or difficulty breathing), fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, and headache. Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea (most commonly in children).
"COVID-19 seems to cause more serious illnesses in some people," the CDC website says. "Other signs and symptoms of COVID-19, different from flu, may include change in or loss of taste or smell."
With the flu, if symptoms develop, they occur one to four days after infection.
It typically takes a person infected with COVID-19 five days to develop symptoms. However, symptoms may occur within two days, or as late as 14 days after infection.
Local hospitals opened additional units and added staff to accommodate an influx of patients as the pandemic spread.
St. Mary's Hospital prepares every flu season by adding staff, Hyde said.
"Both seasonal surges in hospital patients as well as assessing the additional patient volumes related to COVID-19 have been taken into consideration to make sure the hospital is adequately staffed to care for our community," Hyde said.
Both hospitals said the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine has had a positive effect on the outlook of their workers.
Huhman noted CRMC workers who received their first doses of the vaccine in December are beginning to receive their second doses this week.
During the week ending Dec. 26, 31 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza were reported in Missouri (13 of influenza A and 18 of influenza B), according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
The influenza season begins Oct. 1. To date this season, there have been 681 confirmed cases of influenza in the state. There has been one case of an influenza-related death.
Seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains low, according to DHSS. No school closings have occurred because of influenza.