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Dr. Elene Awad (left) and Michele Hartke, APRN (right), both primary care providers with HSHS Medical Group, the physician’s group tied to St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital and dozens of other clinics around southwestern Illinois.

Health care providers around Effingham have noticed very few people are getting the flu this year.

“Definitely, you can feel it,” said Dr. Elene Awad, who has both medical and research doctorates and specializes in internal medicine with HSHS Medical Group in Effingham. “It’s not statistical or scientific, but you can feel it.”

Across all HSHS Medical Group clinics, which cover western central Illinois from St. Louis to Springfield, there have been less than 50 positive influenza cases since the beginning of September. By comparison, last year there were 700 flu cases across the same time period and more than 2,000 across the entire flu season.

This decrease is being driven by the community’s attempts to fight the spread of COVID-19, according to Awad.

“This is a good blessing for all of us,” she said.

Awad said that the prevalence of masks and other COVID-19 precautions is the driving force stopping the spread of influenza.

Even though the cases are drastically lower, Awad says that the Effingham community could have done more to prevent COVID-19 and that it would have lowered cases of it and other diseases even more.

“I think it would have been much less. At the beginning (of the pandemic), we felt we were immune,” said Awad. “But the chance of infection is high because of the interstates.”

Another provider with HSHS Medical Group, advanced practice nurse Michele Hartke, agrees that the Effingham community could have contained COVID and other diseases if residents had followed more precautions.

“When administration comes down from Springfield, they can’t believe how lax we are down here,” Hartke said, referring to higher ups in the Hospital Sisters Health System, which manages St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.

Influenza isn’t the only winter illness that isn’t as common this year. HSHS Medical Group reported in a press release that their strep throat cases are nearly half of what they were last year.

Hartke, who works in family medicine and sees several strep cases in a given year, says that this is a good thing, but she has some worries.

“With COVID and all these other diseases out there, there’s a lot of symptoms that overlap,” Hartke said. “Is it being tested for?”

With many people lumping together sore throats, fevers, and coughs, Hartke is worried that people may not be taking proper care to find out what they have and how to treat it.

“You can have a sore throat and no fever and have strep. It is very important to be swabbed,” said Hartke, referring to the testing method for strep throat. “Until a patient is seen and evaluated, it’s hard to tell where it’s coming from.”

Donna Pierson is the Health Care Supervisor for Effingham School District Unit 40, where she oversees health issues for the district. She says she has also seen the decrease of flu and strep throat cases.

“I’m definitely not seeing what I normally see,” Pierson said, though she said she doesn’t track precise numbers of student illnesses. She added that the reason for the differences this year is complex.

“I’m not sure any of us understands it,” Pierson said. “Some years, we have lots of kids with sore throats.”

Pierson said that as of Friday, Unit 40 didn’t have any students with current positive coronavirus tests and they had only eight in quarantine.

“The kids are really compliant with wearing their masks,” she said.

Statewide, the decrease in flu cases is similar to local trends.

The Illinois Department of Public Health runs a surveillance program to track the number of influenza cases each flu season through a voluntary network of healthcare providers. Though it doesn’t reflect every influenza case, it does provide a picture of how widespread the flu is each year.

One year ago this week, the health department reported just over 160 intensive care unit admissions related to influenza, the most out of the entire season. This week, they reported zero ICU admissions.

The same network of doctors reported last year at this time that about 7.5% of outpatient doctor’s visits in their network were for “influenza-like illnesses,” meaning a patient had a fever above 100 degrees and cough or sore throat. This year, it’s 0.65%.

Though COVID-19 cases are becoming less common in Effingham and other winter illnesses are dramatically down, Awad says proper hygiene and masking are still the two most important things people can do to protect themselves. Even with vaccines being rolled out, Awad said their effectiveness against novel variants is not yet known.

“Number one is masking, especially covering the nose well,” said Awad. “Some are now recommending two masks instead of one.” Awad was referring to the Center for Disease Control updating its guidelines this week. They now recommend wearing multi-layered masks or wearing a disposable medical-style mask underneath a cloth mask.

Awad added that when washing your hands, you should be sure to be sure to use soap. An alcohol wipe or hand sanitizer is good, but Awad says soap is better.

“I believe in soap more than alcohol,” she said, citing the fact it’s easier to get under fingernails and between fingers with a proper hand washing.

“Prevention is the key,” Awad said.

Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com