As COVID-19 cases rise, flu and other infections make a comeback
For more than two years, closing schools and offices, keeping social distance and wearing masks have kept Americans at bay from the flu and most other respiratory infections. This winter may be different.
With few restrictions in place and travel and social activities back in full swing, the expected uptick in COVID-19 cases over the winter appears to be about to collide with a resurgence in flu season, leading to a so-called double-disease epidemic" or even a triple-disease epidemic containing a third virus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Influenza cases have already begun to increase earlier than usual and are expected to surge in the coming weeks. Children infected with respiratory syncytial virus (which has symptoms similar to those of influenza and COVID-19), rhinovirus and enterovirus are already overwhelming pediatric hospitals in several states.
Signs of a severe flu season
Before coronaviruses swept the world, flu viruses sickened millions of people and killed tens of thousands of Americans each winter. During the 2018-19 season, influenza led to 13 million medical visits, 380,000 hospitalizations and 28,000 deaths.
The flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, which typically runs between May and October, is highly predictive of the Northern Hemisphere winter. This year, influenza was several weeks earlier than in previous years in Australia and New Zealand, with a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations.
Gordon tracks the incidence of influenza in children in Nicaragua, where the flu season spans June and July, with a larger flu season in late fall. As of last January, more than 90 percent of the population was considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and many had also gained immunity to one or more infections.
Despite this, the incidence of newly crowned pneumonia and influenza remained high in the first half of the year. The incidence of influenza in children is higher than in the 2009 pandemic, and children are sicker on average than in previous years. "We're seeing a lot of hospitalizations," Gordon said.
In the United States, the flu usually starts to hit in October and continues through March, peaking between December and February. But in some states, the season has already begun.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) show that as of Oct. 8, about 3 percent of flu tests nationwide were positive, but the rate was higher than 10 percent in some Southeastern states and higher than 5 percent in the Mid-South. In Texas, the percentage of positive flu tests rose from 3.7 percent last week to 5.3 percent in early October.
Some southern states have also reported an increase in respirator use. In New York, health officials announced this month that the flu has spread widely in the state.
Public health experts are urging Americans, especially those at high risk, to get the flu vaccine before a significant rise in flu cases. Like the COVID-19 vaccine, the flu vaccine may not be an exact match for the pandemic variant, but even so, it roughly halves the risk of hospitalization for children and adults.
Antibodies are produced about two weeks after vaccination, so the current vaccine may provide better protection in the winter than the September vaccine.
According to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza vaccination rates for all age groups declined slightly last year compared with the previous year. the largest decline in vaccination rates was seen among at-risk children ages 6 months to 4 years, dropping to 67 percent from 75 percent before the arrival of coronavirus.
The lower rate may be because distrust of the COVID-19 vaccine has spread to the flu vaccine, or simply because parents have forgotten the dangers flu poses to young children. It's too early to tell if this year's numbers will improve.
Public health experts say older adults and immunocompromised people should get both the COVID-19 and flu vaccines. Healthy young people who don't want to get sick or can't miss work, or to protect those around them who are at higher risk, may also choose both vaccines.
Some communities are at increased risk of serious illness and hospitalization for influenza. A report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that during the 2009-22 flu season, hospitalization rates were 80 percent higher for black adults than white adults, 30 percent higher for American Indian/Alaska Native adults and 20 percent higher for Hispanic adults.
However, flu vaccination rates for these groups were much lower. Among pregnant women of all racial and ethnic groups, vaccination rates also declined by about 9 percentage points from the previous year.
In February 2020, Gordon was preparing to tell her 7-year-old daughter's class about the coronavirus when a boy in the class died from an influenza B virus infection.
Gordon said of the flu, "For the most part, it doesn't make you very sick, but sometimes it does." "We do have an effective flu vaccine, so I encourage people to get vaccinated."