“I am not telling people to not shake hands” – or are Pa. health leaders, sort of?


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — “It’s early,” cautioned Dr. Rachel Levine, the former secretary of health, back in October, corroborating abc27’s discovery of surprisingly low early-season flu case counts but cautioning that three weeks of data was just… well… three weeks of data.

Now flu season is essentially over, and it’s no longer a question: The 2020-21 flu season was mild beyond any expectations: fully 95 percent fewer lab-confirmed cases than during the 2019-20 flu season, according to the Pa. department of health.

The question now: Why? Probably a combination of anti-COVID measures — which had the helpful side effect of also preventing the transmission of influenza — plus record numbers of people nationally getting flu shots, according to Ray Barishansky, the Department of Health’s deputy secretary for health preparedness and community protection.

Few people are likely to argue with the idea of maintaining uncontroversial health measures, like washing hands, to prevent the flu even once most of the COVID-19 threat passes. But what about shaking hands (which Dr. Anthony Fauci, now the White House’s chief medical advisor, said last year we should consider never doing again?)

“I am not telling people to not shake hands,” Barishansky said Friday, speaking to media about the record-low flu cases. “I am telling people to think about it as we move forward off of COVID-19.”

Anya and Titus Queen, owners of Queen’s BBQ & Southern Cuisine in midtown Harrisburg, don’t have to be told. They don’t allow anyone inside their takeout restaurant — not delivery people nor even longtime customers.

“Even though restrictions are lifting, those same precautions are super important to us,” said Anya Queen. The Queens have young children, not yet eligible for vaccinations, in their families. And Anya Queen’s sister, in her mid-50s, died in December of COVID just three days after being diagnosed.

“The precautions that we took this year, even if COVID is not a factor next flu season, would still be good to follow because I don’t want the flu,” Queen said.

Barishansky also said Friday that it was too early to say whether such low flu case counts could — counterintuitively — complicate the task for drugmakers of producing next year’s flu shot because doing so relies on case data that is unusually scarce this year. Either way, he said, everyone should get a flu shot.

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