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The Peoria area is seeing an unusual late spring bump in flu cases. Here's why

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Senior Airman Areca T. Wilson/ U.S. Air Force
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The month of April usually marks the end of flu season. But this year, it's springing back at an unusual time.

"This is the first significant volume of influenza cases that we've seen for the last two years," said Dr. Praveen Sudhindra, an infectious disease physician for UnityPoint Health - Central Illinois. "And while the absolute caseload is not particularly high, it's just in comparison to the last two seasons that it's gone up."

During the two years of COVID-19 mandates like masking and working from home, Sudhindra said flu cases plummeted.

"In hindsight, it's not all that surprising, because it's spread mainly by droplet, people coughing, sneezing, and spreading it person to person that way," he said. "Wearing masks and socially distancing, and avoiding large gatherings indoors, certainly work to minimize influenza transmission."

Illinois' statewide mask mandate ended Feb. 28. A state school masking mandate effectively ended earlier that month following a court ruling by a Sangamon County judge. The state's mask requirement on planes and public transit ended earlier this month after a federal judge blocked a Centers for Disease Control rule.

Sudhindra said if everyone were to mask up during the traditional flu season, incident rates of not only influenza but other respiratory viruses would likely drop. But he said there are also costs to that approach.

"Everything has a cost and a benefit, whether it's a social cost or an economic cost, there is always some cost to bear," he said. "So I think moving forward as a community and society, we have to decide whether it's worth bearing that cost."

Sudhindra said flu cases were low most of the winter. That's despite this year's influenza vaccine's efficacy rate of only 15% or 16%. Those rates usually vary between 20% to 60%. But he said it's still worth getting an annual flu shot.

"It is tempting to conclude that there's no point in getting vaccinated," he said. "However, I think the benefits sometimes go beyond those raw numbers that we see, especially for people at higher risk for complications from these kinds of illnesses."

Sudhindra said people should continue taking basic precautions based on their own individual health. He said older people or those with chronic medical conditions should consider getting vaccinated, and wearing a mask while traveling or at a large gathering.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.