Stony Brook medicine partnered with the Riverhead Free Library and Sun River Health to deliver flu shots to people on Nov. 12. Credit: Randee Daddona

Flu season is just getting started, but early tracking shows the virus' impact has been mild so far, leaving medical experts hoping it won't complicate a raging COVID-19 pandemic.

There are 162 confirmed cases of influenza in the state as of Nov. 7, according to the New York State Health Department Flu Tracker. At this same time last year, there were 276.

Flu cases in October were, on average, lower than in recent years, with 444 cases compared to 870 for the same period in 2019.

And the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported low seasonal flu activity across the country.

If the trend continues, it would be a rare reprieve in a year where COVID-19 has stretched the medical community to its limits.

Jonah Bruno, a New York State Department of Health spokesman, said in a statement that "the timing and severity of influenza can vary widely from season to season" as the department monitors confirmed flu cases. "Getting a flu shot is the best way for all New Yorkers to protect themselves and others from the flu."

Of the 162 confirmed cases in the state to date, 58 are in Nassau County and 20 in Suffolk County.

A mobile health vehicle parked outside the Riverhead Free Library...

A mobile health vehicle parked outside the Riverhead Free Library in Riverhead on Nov. 12 was part of an effort to reach more people with vaccination this flu season. The event was part of Stony Brook Medicine's "Flu and You" campaign.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Dr. Daniel Griffin, chief of infectious disease at the Lake Success-based ProHEALTH, a large physician group on Long Island and New York City, said they have seen few influenza cases this season.

"In a time of nothing but bad news, the good news is that, so far, we are not seeing the twindemic people were worried about," he said.

Griffin noted that Australia had a moderate flu season, and that measure can sometimes act as a bellwether for the Northern Hemisphere.

But he pointed out that concerns about increased COVID-19 spread during the holidays are also true for flu.

"We start to see a significant upsurge when college students come home and people travel to get together for Thanksgiving," he said.

The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine, with rare exceptions. The agency estimates less than half, or 48.4% of eligible adults 18 and older, got the vaccine last season. The figure was slightly better for children, at 63.8% for those 6 months to 17 years old.

The state Health Department and local health systems have ramped up efforts to get more New Yorkers vaccinated.

Stony Brook Medicine has partnered with libraries to offer flu clinics.

Denise Lopez, a nurse manager with Sun River Health, administers a...

Denise Lopez, a nurse manager with Sun River Health, administers a flu shot to a man in a mobile health unit outside the Riverhead Free Library in Riverhead on Nov. 12. Credit: Randee Daddona

Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of the Healthcare Epidemiology Department at Stony Brook Medicine, said she has recently seen many people get flu shots for the first time.

"If that is amplified across many opportunities, it’s heartening that we are in the right direction," she said. "Maybe that will become their new norm."

Donelan hasn’t seen many cases this year but she said it’s too soon to tell if that will hold.

"A typical flu season is almost a myth," she said. "The more that we are able to analyze the flu seasons, the more we’re surprised about how much variation there can be."

She said the current low number of flu cases can at least partly be attributed to people wearing face coverings and observing social distancing to ward off COVID-19.

A few simple measures can make the difference, she said, such as getting a flu shot, washing your hands and socially distancing from other people.

"We actually still have time to influence what this winter is going to look like," she said. "We know what we can do, we know what we have to do. But will we?"

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