Worst flu outbreak in more than a decade drives hospitalizations up

Worst flu outbreak in more than a decade drives hospitalizations up

Illustration of a thermometer in the shape of an arrow pointing upwards, with the mercury rising.

Artwork: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Another wave of viral illnesses is descending on a healthcare system already pushed to breaking point by COVID-19 and, more recently, RSV.

Driving the news: The worst flu outbreak in more than a decade has left nearly every state with high or very high levels of influenza activity, underscoring how pandemic precautions may have made us more vulnerable to seasonal respiratory illnesses.

The big picture: Flu-related hospital admissions during the week of Thanksgiving nearly doubled from the previous week and were the highest seen for that time since the 2010-2011 season, according to the CDC.

  • Adults 65 and older and children 4 and younger were particularly affected during the unusually early flare-up, especially if they had underlying health conditions.
  • But about 4 in 10 Americans say they are not planning to get a flu shot this season, largely because they fear the shots won’t work well or have side effects.
  • The Biden administration is pledging resources and personnel to help local health systems cope, but is not considering declaring a public health emergency, CNN reported.

Go further: Public health experts say masking and other pandemic precautions have largely kept the flu at bay over the past two years and disrupted its seasonal spread. But returning to pre-pandemic life has left us “immunologically na├»ve” and more susceptible to infection.

  • Normally, “we could be exposed to a little bit of virus and your body fights it off,” John Tregoning, an immunologist at Imperial College London, told Nature. But, he added, “that kind of asymptomatic boost may not have happened in recent years.”
  • Last year, a research team predicted strong epidemic rebounds in children once personal protective measures were lifted and called for robust “catch-up vaccination programmes”.
  • But experts warn they still don’t know much about seasonal viruses and continue to wrestle with questions such as the extent to which COVID-19 has weakened public immunity.

The flu epidemic is coming as other respiratory diseases circulate, including respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and emerging variants of COVID.

  • The CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from the flu.

What they say : “We cannot let our guard down. We must take the precautions we need to prevent the spread of these viruses, such as washing our hands, wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces and making sure we stay home if we are sick. And of course, again, with COVID and the flu [to] get vaccinated as soon as possible,” US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

What we are looking at: Pregnant women and certain racial and ethnic groups are of particular concern. The flu vaccination rate at this point for pregnant women is 12.1 percentage points lower than in 2021 and 21.7 percentage points lower than in 2020, the Center for Infectious Disease Research noted. and Policy from the University of Minnesota.

  • Flu hospitalization rates were nearly 80% higher among black adults than white adults from 2009 to 2022, according to the CDC. And less than 43% of black, Hispanic and Native American adults were vaccinated during the 2021-2022 flu season.
  • The federal government could step in to help stressed health care providers, such as allowing hospitals with staff shortages to use waivers to increase capacity or facilitate the transfer of patients with influenza, COVID or RSV, a writes Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to the states in a letter obtained by CNN.
  • The CDC also has $400 million in funding to respond to health threats like influenza, as well as data analysis and other resources, according to the letter.

The bottom line: The The COVID-19 threat may be more manageable, thanks to vaccines, antivirals and testing. But the experience of the pandemic may have made us more vulnerable to waves of other seasonal illnesses that make getting back to normal difficult.

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