Widespread mask-wearing in the face of the COVID-19 crisis contributed to last year’s almost nonexistent flu season, and with mask mandates in place in Santa Barbara County, the upcoming season could also have fewer influenza cases than usual, medical professionals say.

“I don’t know if it will be as good as last year’s because we were also locked down last year,” said Dr. Charles Fenzi, CEO and chief medical officer of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics.

“People weren’t going out, where now kids are back at school and all that stuff.”

Dr. Kurt Ransohoff, CEO of Sansum Clinic, agreed.

“We saw zero cases of influenza last year, because of the masking and the limited social contact we all endured last year,” he said in an email to Noozhawk.

“Because there is more social activity and people are more likely to have unmasked interactions than last year, there will be more cases of influenza than last year — a safe bet, considering there were no cases.

“I don’t think it will be like a normal year, because there is more masking than normal and people in the aggregate have not completely gone back to normal life yet.”

The influenza surveillance season typically runs from late September to mid-May, when public health departments track positive cases and flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.

In the 2019-2020 flu season, California reported 706 influenza-coded deaths, including 18 children.

Santa Barbara County had nine influenza-associated deaths, all among people older than 65. There were 13 outbreaks — “clusters of upper respiratory illness” — reported in congregate settings.

During the 2020-2021 flu season, which overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic, California reported 50 influenza-associated deaths, and Santa Barbara County reported zero.

There were zero clusters of noncoronavirus upper respiratory illness reported in congregate settings, and zero positive lab tests for influenza.

Santa Barbara-area health-care providers recommend getting the flu vaccine annually in September or October so the shots are effective throughout the season.

According to the county Public Health Department, 75% of influenza seasons from 1982-1983 to 2017-2018 peaked in January or later.

“September and October are the best times to get a flu vaccine,” Ransohoff said. “But if someone can’t get one then, getting one later is better than not getting one.”

Fenzi said the Neighborhood Clinics will be ready.

“CDPH (California Department of Public Health) is recommending as soon as we have them available to start the flu vaccinations so that’s what we’re following,” he said.

The flu vaccine takes effect about two weeks after being administered.

“Flu vaccines are felt to be good for a single season,” Ransohoff explained. “There is so much genetic change in the flu virus every year that this year’s vaccine is also slightly different than last year’s.

“Because of the biology of the virus and the limited duration of the immunity, flu shots are thus given yearly.”

Flu vaccines are available at pharmacies, health-care clinics and other providers. The cost is covered by health insurance.

Providers continue to offer the vaccines as long as influenza is still circulating in the community.

The vaccines are recommended for everyone age 6 months and older, according to Sansum Clinic. Patients age 65 and older are eligible for high-dose vaccines if supplies are available.

Influenza and COVID-19 Vaccines

Providers can administer the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine to someone on the same day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“COVID-19 vaccines may now be administered without regard to timing of other vaccines,” the CDC says. “This includes simultaneous administration of COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines on the same day, as well as coadministration within 14 days.”

Fenzi said Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinic physicians will probably offer both to patients.

“Yes, we would love to give a shot in each arm to people who haven’t availed themselves of the (COVID-19) vaccine yet,” he said.

Sansum Clinic will be offering the flu shot to patients during regular visits and has specific flu vaccine clinics scheduled. It does not have plans to administer both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines to patients at the same time, Ransohoff said.

“Depending on the guidance from public health authorities in the weeks and months ahead, we may do that,” he said. “But, for now, except in very unusual circumstances, they are given separately.”

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.