Twice as many people died of the flu last year than coronavirus and influenza combined in 2020, new data shows.
Social distancing measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 have seen dramatic reductions in the common, seasonal illness – which is far less lethal than coronavirus.
In New South Wales, Australia’s most populated state, 127 people died of the flu between New Year’s Day and the start of August last year.
In 2020 so far, just 12 people have died of influenza, NSW Health data showed.
Another 52 fatalities have been linked to COVID-19 – a 1.3 per cent mortality rate from 3,957 cases.
This year, the state’s death rate of 64 for the flu and coronavirus combined is just half last year’s influenza fatality rate.
Australian National University Medical School professor Peter Collignon said social distancing and sick people staying home from the office had done more to dramatically reduce flu transmissions than any surge in influenza vaccines.
‘I don’t think it’s the flu shot, it’s actually the physical distancing,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘The data shows, if you’re more likely to do the right things, which every year we don’t do, you’ll stop respiratory viruses spreading.
‘Avoid crowds indoors because that is the biggest factor.’
Both coronavirus and influenza predominantly kill those aged 65 and over but only one of them, COVID-19, has led to the shutting of Australia’s border to non-citizens and non-residents and the closure of service businesses – sparking the biggest economic meltdown since the 1930s Great Depression.
Professor Collignon said Victoria’s earlier lockdowns in March had been too strict and advocated a policy position between Sweden’s free approach and New Zealand’s, harsher ‘elimination’ strategy.
‘We can’t close down completely,’ he said. ‘We need somewhere in between.
‘Look at New Zealand with its hard lockdown and Victoria which had the hardest lockdown in Australia but it hasn’t achieved the best results.
‘This is a long game. We need a sensible, long-term approach.’
Professor Collignon said the medical term ‘elimination’ – to describe no community transmission after 28 days – gave the public the impression they could resume normal life once restrictions eased, only to see case numbers surge again.
‘Yes, we’ve been successful in decreasing deaths from COVID and from other viruses but there is a level of risk we’re going to have to accept in my view because this virus isn’t going to go away,’ he said.
‘The basic things about physical distancing, some type of indoor crowd control, hand hygiene, keeping away from others when you’re sick – we’re going to have to continue for the next couple of years at least.’
Australia’s less populated states, like Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, have to varying degrees closed their borders to NSW and Victorians.
‘This state border closure, you can argue, is an overreaction when you’re stopping people coming from one state with no transmission or very little to another,’ Professor Collignon said.
Across Australia, there have this year been 21,005 confirmed cases of the flu compared with 23,559 positive cases of COVID-19 – owing mainly to a second wave in Victoria, federal Department of Health data said.
By comparison, there have been 3,213 cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, and 8,673 cases of the shingles.
The drop in flu numbers isn’t confined to NSW.
Victoria’s influenza tally of 4,722 for 2020 so far marks an 89.7 per cent drop from last year’s 45,837 count for January to August.
Victoria doesn’t provide weekly death rates for the flu even though Premier Daniel Andrews delivers daily briefings on COVID-19 fatalities.
In Queensland, there have been 5,934 cases of the flu in 2020 so far, compared with 66,135 between January and October last year.
While COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, as the flu is, the coronavirus has a mortality rate that is 10 times higher than influenza.
‘There’s still lots of things we don’t know,’ Professor Collignon said.
Australia’s COVID-19 mortality rate in 2020 stands at 1.8 per cent with 421 deaths from 23,559 cases.
By comparison, there have been 36 influenza deaths from 21,005 cases this year – a 0.17 per cent fatality rate, the Department of Health’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System data showed.