Influenza is being detected at elevated levels for this time of year in Southern California, a trend that officials say could herald a difficult season after a pandemic-induced lull.
At this point, overall influenza activity in California remains low, according to the state Department of Public Health. But since the flu typically starts to rise nationally in late November or December, higher-than-normal levels now could lead to more challenges later.
Current levels of flu activity are “much higher” compared to years before the pandemic, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said in a bulletin to health care providers. “In previous years, an earlier start to the season was associated with a season with substantially higher influenza activity.”
County public health director Barbara Ferrer put it bluntly: “The flu is definitely circulating here in Los Angeles County.”
“I think we actually have a higher percentage of specimens testing positive for the flu at this time of year than we normally do in a normal flu season,” he said Thursday.
The county is not unique in this regard. As of last week, “early increases in seasonal influenza activity have been reported across most of the United States, with the southeastern and south-central areas of the country reporting the highest levels of activity.” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nationally, 4.4% of influenza tests reported to the CDC were positive during the week ending October 15, according to the agency. data sample. That’s an increase of 2.8% from the previous week.
Officials generally recommend the flu shot for people 6 months and older. This year, officials are also suggesting that people 65 and older get turbocharged flu shots that are considered higher-dose or “adjuvanted,” which help trigger a stronger immune response.
But some doctors say older people shouldn’t delay getting vaccinated too long if they can’t find a higher dose. A standard flu shot may be a better decision than waiting, especially if you’re at higher risk of infection or serious health outcomes.
Recent data from Los Angeles County shows that 8.5% of laboratory specimens tested at county sentinel laboratories tested positive for influenza. That is much higher than in recent years, when the positivity rate was less than 4%.
“In 2017-18 and 2019-20, an early start to the [flu] The season was a harbinger of seasons with substantially higher indicators of influenza activity and severity,” the county said in a statement.
Influenza, the bulletin continued, “is associated with serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, particularly among older adults, very young children, pregnant people, and people of all ages with certain chronic medical conditions.”
San Diego County is also caveat of a “quick and early start” to the flu season. Health officials reported several large suspected respiratory outbreaks this month, including clusters of illnesses in schools.
“Get tested for COVID-19 and the flu when you develop respiratory symptoms and stay away from others if you are sick,” San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said in a statement.
Health officials say getting vaccinated, especially now, remains the best way for residents to protect themselves from both the flu and COVID-19. Residents can get both shots at the same time.
“One of the reasons we tell people to get both vaccines at the same time is that everyone should get those vaccines now,” Ferrer said. “The flu is here.”
For people who prefer to get their flu and COVID-19 booster shots on separate days, Ferrer suggested not waiting too long between them.
“You don’t need to wait in the middle. So I don’t think it really matters if you get your flu shot today and get your [updated COVID-19] bivalent reinforcement tomorrow,” he said. “But I urge people to do both, either close together or at the same time.”
To schedule a flu or COVID-19 vaccination appointment, or find a walk-in clinic near you, visit MyTurn.ca.gov.