Posts falsely claim 2020 US flu cases misrepresented as Covid-19

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Social media posts claim low influenza numbers in the United States in 2020 were due to cases being misrepresented as Covid-19. But the diseases are distinct and are tracked separately by US health authorities, who say that strict safety measures undertaken to stop the spread of Covid-19 likely also reduced flu cases.

"'The US flu season has arrived on schedule after taking a year off.' The flu didn't take off last year. It was called Covid," says a December 28, 2021 Facebook post.

The first sentence of the Facebook post echoes the headline of an Associated Press article, the second paragraph of which addressed the potential role of Covid-19 prevention efforts in reducing flu cases.

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken on December 29, 2021

The social media claim -- which comes as the Omicron variant sweeps through the United States, breaking records for case counts, renewing the stress on testing infrastructure and exacerbating the strain on hospitals in some places -- also appeared on Facebook here and here, and on Twitter here.

False claims that Covid-19 and the flu are equivalent, or that health authorities have disguised one as the other, have circulated since the beginning of the pandemic, and experts have repeatedly refuted them.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) addresses the difference between the two on its website: "Influenza (flu) and Covid-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Covid-19 is caused by infection with a coronavirus first identified in 2019, and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses."

Because symptoms are often similar, "testing is needed to tell what the illness is and to confirm a diagnosis," the CDC says.

The diseases require different treatments and vaccines, and can cause different complications, according to the Johns Hopkins Health System website.

Some preventive measures, like "staying home when sick and limiting contact with people who are infected," are effective at slowing the spread of both Covid-19 and the flu, it says.

The CDC tracks Covid-19 and flu cases separately, both last year and this year. On its website, the US health agency says "flu activity was unusually low throughout the 2020-2021 flu season both in the United States and globally, despite high levels of testing."

The agency goes on to outline potential reasons for the decline: "Covid-19 mitigation measures such as wearing face masks, staying home, hand washing, school closures, reduced travel, increased ventilation of indoor spaces, and physical distancing, likely contributed to the decline in 2020-2021 flu incidence, hospitalizations and deaths."

Also, a record number of flu shots were administered in 2020, which contributed to reduced flu illness, the CDC says.

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 1,200 inaccurate claims related to Covid-19 here.

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