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Data: CDC; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Thanks largely to social distancing and mask-wearing — as well as higher uptake of the flu vaccine — influenza deaths this season are almost nonexistent.

Why it matters: The drastic drop in infections of influenza and other circulating respiratory viruses has given the U.S. health care system a welcome respite at a time when COVID-19 is rampaging.

By the numbers: According to the CDC, the U.S. recorded just five flu deaths in the 52nd week of 2020, a period that usually represents the height of the influenza season.

  • That is 40-fold fewer deaths than the same week in 2019, and more than 130-fold fewer deaths than during the bad flu season of 2017.
  • According to data from BioFire Diagnostics, levels of nearly every common respiratory and gastrointestinal virus are currently all but undetectable.

How it works: It turns out if you drastically reduce global travel, close public workplaces and schools, and promote mask-wearing and handwashing, you'll cut off opportunities for common pathogens to spread.

  • It also helps that a record number of flu vaccine doses have been shipped this season, and an estimated 53–54% of American adults had gotten a shot by the end of December, significantly higher than the same time last year.

The big picture: Historically low levels of flu and other common viruses are happening at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is at its worst.

  • That's not surprising: While common viruses have circulated for years and there is a base level of resistance in the population, no one had encountered SARS-CoV-2 before it emerged in China a year ago, and the virus continues to spread rapidly through the vulnerable population.

What to watch: With each week that passes with unusually low levels of flu, susceptibility to the virus will rise, potentially setting up the U.S. for a harsh rebound in the future.

  • That may be what's happening in Australia, where flu cases during its winter season were virtually nonexistent, only to bounce back this December, when the flu is usually absent in the Southern Hemisphere.

The bottom line: While it's good to see fewer deaths from influenza, SARS-CoV-2 is ravaging the U.S. at an entirely different magnitude, with more Americans dying of COVID-19 last week than the entire number of flu deaths last season.

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Germany to impose travel restrictions to curb spread of coronavirus variants

Border police officers check passports and COVID-19 tests at Frankfurt Airport. Photo: Thomas Lohnes via Getty Images

Germany announced Friday that it was imposing new travel restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants.

Details: All non-German residents traveling from countries deemed "areas of variant concern," including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Portugal, Ireland, Brazil, Lesotho and Eswatini, will be banned from entering the country, even if they test negative for the coronavirus.

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

GOP operatives accused of funneling Russian cash to Trump

Jesse Benton, spokesman for the Ron Paul campaign, speaking to reporters in the spin room after the CNN Debate on January 1, 2012. Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

A former senior aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul was indicted this month for allegedly funneling $25,000 from a wealthy, unnamed Russian to former President Trump's reelection efforts.

The big picture: The Justice Department alleges that Jesse Benton, 43, the husband of Paul's niece and a veteran Republican staffer, orchestrated a scheme to conceal the illegal foreign donation with another GOP operative, Doug Wead.