Susana Sanchez, Nurse Practitioner, administers Luasi Barrere’s flu shot at CVS Pharmacy and MinuteClinic in Miami, Florida.
Joe Radle | Getty Images
Influenza hospitalizations increased nearly 30% in a week as the spread of respiratory illness remains high across much of the US.
More than 11,200 people were hospitalized with the flu in the week ending November 19, compared with about 8,700 hospitalized during the previous week, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The flu has hit unusually hard and early this season, putting pressure on emergency rooms across the country. Influenza activity usually picks up after Thanksgiving, but in early November, hospitalizations already hit a ten-year high.
Scientists and public health experts are concerned that flu hospitalizations will rise even more as millions travel to Thanksgiving to see family and friends. Christmas is also only a few weeks away, giving the flu another opportunity to spread widely.
About 11 people out of every 100,000 have been hospitalized with the flu since early October, the highest number in a decade. This season, more than 6.2 million people fell ill, 53 thousand were hospitalized, 2900 people died. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The fact that we are already at such a high level ahead of the holiday season makes me nervous,” said Scott Hensley, a microbiologist and influenza expert at the Pennsylvania Institute of Immunology.
Hensley said the flu hit harder earlier this year because the population’s immunity is probably at its lowest point in recent history. The flu has barely spread for two years due to camouflage and social distancing measures put in place during Covid, he said. As a result, large swaths The population has not received a boost in immunity from the infection, so this year they may be more vulnerable to the flu than in past seasons.
The elderly and children under the age of five are the most vulnerable, with hospitalization rates roughly double the national average. A variant of the flu, more severe for the elderly, is also prevalent now, meaning the US could expect a tougher season. More than 60% of influenza samples tested in public health laboratories have tested positive for influenza A(H3N2), according to the CDC.
“This is a well-described phenomenon. H3N2 has a more severe impact on the elderly, so more people are hospitalized, admitted to the intensive care unit and die,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.
Influenza vaccines are usually not as effective against H3N2, although there is hope that this season may change. Most of the flu viruses tested are similar to the strains included in this year’s vaccine, according to the CDC.
Vaccine efficacy data has yet to be published, but vaccines generally work best when they are well combined with circulating options. The effectiveness of influenza vaccines in past seasons has ranged from 19% to 60% depending on how well the vaccines matched the circulating strains.
“From what we’re seeing, it looks like the vaccines match up pretty damn well with what’s circulating,” Hensley said. “If there is ever a time to get vaccinated, it will be this year,” he said.
Influenza activity has been highest in the Southeast in recent weeks, according to the CDC, but much of the country is now seeing high rates of infection.
Influenza activity is moderate to low in Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Wyoming.