By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
After a hiatus of nearly two years, the Wyoming Department of Health is tracking influenza infections once again.
The latest available data on flu infection showed an influenza infection rate above what the state Health Department had predicted through most of the current flu season.
The figures showed that flu rates between late October and early March exceeded the projected seasonal average of 2% of those visiting health care providers except during a four-week period in November and December and a one-week period in March.
The highest percentage of flu infections occurred in late January, at just less than 6%.
Flu activity was “high” in January but waned to “moderate” in late February and now is listed as “minimal” — in a curve typical of flu seasons historically, according to Department of Health data.
In a similar report from 2018, flu infection percentages started the flu season lower but peaked at a higher infection rate, topping out at 7% in February.
The Health Department stopped tracking the flu in the spring of 2020, soon after implementing its rigorous COVID-19 tracking platforms.
“Flu activity dropped to a very low level in spring 2020 when COVID took over,” WDH spokeswoman Kim Deti wrote Monday in an email to Cowboy State Daily.
She attributed the drop to “precautions” taken by the state’s residents to slow the spread of COVID.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon in March of 2020 instigated a state of emergency which allowed the state to put limits on gatherings, mandate business closures and put other restrictions in place. Those mandates have eased, and Gordon announced Feb. 28 that he plans to end the state of emergency on March 14.
WDH has posted flu tallies, along with influenza and pneumonia death tallies from October and November 2021 to its website, health.wyo.gov.
However, those numbers were not publicly available during those months. According to Deti, they were not posted until Dec. 31.
“Influenza is tracked by season, not by calendar year,” she wrote, adding that “reported numbers do not show a total picture with flu and never have.”
Deti explained the delay in posting was the result of burdens on department staff created by COVID.
“Our staff in this area has been carrying a heavy load due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
WDH staff, Deti said, now are uploading flu data on a weekly basis.
Although the bar graphs logging flu and pneumonia deaths were not accessible via weekly reports during the tracking hiatus, those numbers now have been added into the flu tracking reports.
The winter of 2020-21 showed generally fewer pneumonia and flu deaths than in the five years prior with between six and nine per month. April and May of 2021 had six and five pneumonia/flu deaths respectively, which was closer to the five-year averages of roughly eight and four.
The current season from November to February has had generally fewer pneumonia/flu deaths than the six years prior, except for an October 2021 spike to 12 deaths.
Deti said in the 2020-21 flu season, only one flu death also was listed as a COVID death.
“This was actually the only reported influenza-related death for the 2020-21 season,” she said, indicating that the other 49 deaths on the mortality graphs are attributable to pneumonia instead.
So far this season, added Deti, “we have not seen” death certificates listing both COVID and the flu as causes.
The department’s Records Department declined to provide a tally of ages and underlying death causes in COVID victims in late 2020, saying “listing a decedent’s age and the cause of death… may easily be linked or mapped back to an obituary and the identity of the party.”
“The WDH will not disclose this death data to the public,” the agency wrote at the time.