According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US is facing the highest flu hospitalization rates in more than a decade, with children and the elderly being most at risk.
Flu and respiratory syncytial virus had declined during the Covid-19 pandemic due to mitigation measures such as masks and social distancing. But as people begin to return to their normal routines and socialize without masks, the virus is making a big comeback.
At least 1.6 million people have contracted the flu so far this season, 13,000 people have been hospitalized and 730 have died, according to CDC data.
About 3 in 100,000 people with the virus are currently hospitalized with the flu, which is the highest rate since 2010. The current hospitalization rate is nearly five times what it was in the last pre-pandemic season in 2019.
Seniors and children under the age of 5 are currently at greatest risk, with hospitalization rates about twice that of the general population, according to CDC data.
“There are also early signs of influenza causing severe illness in those very two groups of people,” said Dr. Jose Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters during a briefing Friday.
In the U.S. southeast, about 20% of respiratory samples test positive for a strain of flu called H3N2, which has historically been linked to more serious illness in children and the elderly, Romero said. In the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, H1N1 influenza viruses are becoming more prevalent, he said.
Cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are also currently on the rise in almost every region of the U.S., Romero said. However, in most parts of the South and West, RSV is trending down and the flu is now rising, he said.
RSV is a common virus that most children catch before the age of two. It usually causes cold symptoms but can also lead to serious illness that requires hospitalization in infants and the elderly.
Romero said mitigation measures implemented during Covid have not infected a large proportion of the US population with other common respiratory viruses, and as a result these viruses are now increasing as young children in particular lack immunity to previous infections.
The federal government stands ready to send in medical teams and provide supplies from the strategic national stockpile if hospitals exceed capacity, according to Dawn O’Connell, a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services. To date, no state has requested such assistance, O’Connell said.
Romero called out everyone who is eligible for an annual flu shot and a Covid booster dose. Children under 8 who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time should get two doses for the best protection, he said. There is no vaccine that protects against RSV.
Romero also urged people to take everyday, sensible precautions, such as drinking water. B. Covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and washing your hands frequently.
It is often difficult to tell the difference between flu, RSV and Covid symptoms. Romero said parents should seek immediate medical attention for their children if they exhibit any of the following warning signs: difficulty breathing, bluish lips or face, chest or muscle pain, dehydration (dry mouth, crying without tears, or urinating for hours), or when awake not attentive or interactive.
White House Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, also warned this week that the number of deaths from Covid is still far too high. Fauci said the US is at a crossroads as omicron subvariants emerge that are resistant to key antibody treatments that protect those most at risk.
Fauci warned hospitals could face a “negative trifecta” this winter from emerging Covid variants, the flu and RSV.
“It’s going to be very confusing and could even put a strain on the hospital system, especially for the pediatric population,” Fauci said.