Flu season has risen early in the United States, and flu hospitalizations are worse than normal for this time of year data released Friday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It has been more than a decade, since the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, since flu hospitalization rates have been so high at this time of the season.
The CDC estimates that there have been at least 880,000 illnesses, nearly 7,000 hospitalizations, and 360 deaths from the flu in the US this season. This week the first pediatric death was reported in the country.
Getting a flu shot is still the best way to protect yourself, experts say. And the best time to do it is now.
“Please receive it this afternoon. Don’t delay,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“We’re kind of in a race with the virus,” he said, with flu season starting at least a month earlier than usual. And it takes between 10 days and two weeks for the vaccine to offer full protection.
As in previous years, the recommended by the CDC that people get their flu shot before the end of October. But flu vaccination rates are lower than typical for this time of year.
About 128 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed this season, compared with 140 million at this point last year and 156 million the year before, according to the CDC. data.
Although the current season started early, there are more than enough reasons for those who haven’t gotten their chance to do so now, Schaffner said.
“I would assure anyone who hasn’t received it yet that it’s not too late,” he said. And “the recommendations couldn’t be simpler”: Anyone over the age of 6 months in the US is eligible and recommended to get a flu shot, with rare exceptions.
“Flu season will be with us for at least a few more months. We don’t know if it will be shorter or longer than usual,” Schaffner said. “There are still very good reasons to protect yourself from the vaccine.”
And people who are vaccinated can still get sick, but the goal of the vaccine is to protect against more serious outcomes and complications.
“We can recognize that the flu vaccine is not perfect. You can’t absolutely protect everyone completely from the flu,” he said. “They help keep you out of the ER, the hospital, the ICU, and they protect you from dying. As I used to tell my patients, ‘I’m so glad you’re still here to complain.’ “
Overall, CDC data shows that the proportion of lab tests that are positive for influenza has more than doubled in the past two weeks and that influenza activity is highest in the South. Additional Walgreens data tracking prescriptions for antiviral treatments, such as Tamiflu, suggests hotspots in the Gulf Coast area, including Houston and New Orleans.
And flu season is ramping up amid the surge of RSV that’s filling pediatric hospitals and an ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Eleven states, along with Washington, DC and New York City, report high or very high levels of respiratory illness, according to the CDC.
The rise in respiratory viruses can get worse before it gets better, Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, said Thursday.
He urged people to try to prevent any respiratory illness, including by getting Covid-19 vaccinations and boosters, and the annual flu shot.
“Making sure your children and anyone older than 6 months in your family get a flu shot this year is even more important because we haven’t seen much flu in the last few years, so everyone is going to get into this season. with less immunity, less protection from previous infections,” Rajapakse said.
Those at risk for complications from respiratory illnesses, including the elderly and those with underlying conditions, should contact their health care providers as soon as they start noticing any symptoms, Schaffner said. There are treatments for Covid-19 and the flu that offer additional protection against serious outcomes, she said.
“From a respiratory virus standpoint, the winter season has started early,” Schaffner said. “If you develop symptoms, do not go to school or work. Shelter at home a little bit so you’re not spreading the virus, whatever it is.”