What to Know About California’s Flu Season

Masks and social distancing helped keep flu deaths below average last winter.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

As is the case with so many things, the pandemic flipped on its head something we once took for granted: the rampant spread of the flu.

Each year between October and May, generally considered flu season in America, millions of people catch influenza and tens of thousands die from it. The flu has consistently been one of the top 10 annual leading causes of death in the U.S. — until 2020.

Last year’s flu season caused about 1 percent of the hospitalizations and infections of an average season, according to some estimates. In California, 50 people died of the flu last winter, a huge drop from 706 deaths during the 2019-20 season.

We can think of this as a pandemic silver living: A combination of social distancing, masking and school closures that were in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus most likely also kept the flu at bay.

That’s good news, but it leaves a question mark around what’s going to happen this year. Coronavirus restrictions have been loosened, but we’re by no means back to a prepandemic normal.

So, you might be wondering, how bad is the flu season going to get?

The short (and frustrating) answer is that we have to wait and see. The flu season typically peaks around February, so we can’t know all that much based on what we’ve seen in these early months.

So far, flu case numbers nationwide and in California have been low, but are trending upward.

Three Californians have died of the flu since October, including a middle-aged man in Los Angeles County. The other deaths were an elderly Californian and a person between the ages of 18 and 49, according to state data.

The universal indoor masking requirement that California instated this week to stem rising coronavirus numbers is likely to also limit the spread of the flu. Same goes for moving gatherings to outdoor settings, thorough hand-washing and most measures aimed at minimizing Covid-19 spread.

Patrons of Grand Central Market are required to wear masks as of this week.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

But the pandemic may also have less beneficial effects on flu transmission. Some experts worry that last year’s light influenza season reduced Americans’ immunity to the virus.

One mathematical model calculated that our increased susceptibility could lead to an extra 102,000 Americans hospitalized with influenza this winter — a 20 percent increase compared with an average flu season.

“Because of so little disease last year, population immunity is likely lower, putting us all at increased risk of disease this year, especially among the most vulnerable, including our children,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a recent press briefing.

Health officials say the best protection is a flu vaccine, which they recommend for everyone 6 months and older. Though not as effective as the Covid-19 vaccines, they’re still the best way to keep yourself safe from the flu.

“That’s the only thing that really makes a difference,” Peter Palese, a microbiologist and flu expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told my colleague in a Q. and A. on how to prepare for flu season.

One argument in favor of getting a flu vaccine feels especially resonant nowadays:

The vaccines reduce your likelihood of not just catching the flu, but of passing it on to someone else. You may be able to survive a bout with the virus, but a child or grandparent you transmit it to may not be so lucky.

For more:

  • California is exempting San Francisco from its new indoor masking mandate.

  • A new generation of flu vaccines may soon emerge, based on the same mRNA technology in Covid-19 vaccines.

  • By embracing what’s been learned from the coronavirus, the world can change the trajectory of flu seasons.

If you read one story, make it this

Business groups are suing to block a new California law that they say could keep pork off plates.

California, Arizona and Nevada’s share of Colorado River water is delivered through the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead.Credit…Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The rest of the news

  • Drought: Water leaders in California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to reduce intake from the Colorado River to stave off mandatory cuts, The Associated Press reports.

    Also on Wednesday, California regulators advanced what could be the state’s first major new water storage project in decades.

  • Overqualified and overwhelmed: Thousands of students across California meet the requirements for the state’s top public universities but are struggling to gain admittance, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Population changes: Since the pandemic, the amount of people leaving California has more than doubled, with fewer people coming in, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • L.A. schools: The Los Angeles school board decided to delay enforcement of a Covid-19 student vaccination requirement to fall 2022. It was scheduled to go into effect next month.

  • Outdoor dining: Manhattan Beach is ending its street dining program after complaints about increased traffic and narrowed driving lanes, The Associated Press reports.

  • Covid classroom: An entire sixth-grade class was sent home and instructed to quarantine in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, CBS LA reports.

  • Oil spill: An oil company based in Houston was charged for releasing crude oil into the ocean off the Southern California coast, The Associated Press reports.


  • Rocky road: Boulders the size of small cars blocked Highway 180 after a rockslide, The Fresno Bee reports.


  • Sick leave: San Francisco has become the first city in the country to pass legislation requiring paid sick leave for domestic workers, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • A controversial proposal: A plan to airdrop poison pellets on Farallon Islands to kill mice that have wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem is coming up for a vote today, The Marin Independent Journal reports.

Credit…Cons Poulos for The New York Times

What we’re eating

Crispy feta makes a dazzling appetizer.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s travel tip comes from Laryn Lee, who recommends Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

An annual tamales party, New Year’s in Palm Springs or an order of Ikeda’s pies for Christmas dinner — what are your Golden State holiday traditions?

Email me at [email protected].

Alissa Johnson greeting visitors at Simpson University’s Christmas concert in Redding.Credit… Hung T. Vu

And before you go, some good news

In early December, The Redding Record Searchlight wrote about a surprising musical talent — a masterful cellist who lives on the streets.

Alissa Johnson, 33, has been playing cello since she was 11 and was described as a musical “genius.” Unable to afford a new instrument outright, she bought a custom-made cello for $7,300 on credit earlier this year.

After the newspaper article published, Johnson got word that an anonymous reader wanted to pay off her cello. She still owed $6,649.

“I wish I could give them a hug, like 1,000 hugs or maybe how about like 6,600 hugs,” Johnson told The Redding Record Searchlight.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Bit of improv practice (5 letters).

Jack Kramer and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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