Flu-related hospitalizations for this time of the year are the highest they’ve been in a decade, according to new government figures, an ominous sign about the months to come.
So far this season, there have been at least 880,000 lab-confirmed influenza illnesses, 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 deaths from flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates released Friday. The data is through the week ending Oct. 22.
Flu season is typically between October and May, and peaks in December and January. But this year it arrived at least six weeks early, with more severe illness. Hospitalizations are rising across all age groups, but the highest hospitalization rates were among adults age 65 and older, and children age 4 and younger.
There was one pediatric death in the past week, the CDC said.
The highest rates of flu activity are in the Southeast and South-Central states from Texas to Georgia, and are starting to move up the Atlantic coast.
More than 2,300 patients were admitted to hospitals during the week ending Oct. 22. According to the CDC’s influenza surveillance network across 13 states, the cumulative hospitalizations rate is higher than this time in any previous season going back to 2010-2011.
Influenza has not been a serious problem the last two years because of the precautions people took against COVID-19, like masking and physical distancing. But a large majority of the country has moved on from those protections, and as more people head inside in the colder months, the virus is taking its toll.
“The flu is here. It has started very vigorously. It is early. It’s about a month to six weeks early. There’s no doubt,” said William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“And I think the implications for the average person are, if you haven’t gotten your flu vaccine, do it this afternoon. Do not linger.”
The CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine annually. There is no dominant strain yet, but the influenza strain that is being most often reported matches well with the formation of this year’s shot, Schaffner said.
About 21 percent of adults have already received a vaccine this year, according to the CDC, basing its estimates off an Ipsos survey conducted in early October. The percentage is similar to the estimate from a comparable survey conducted this same time last year, the agency said.
About 22 percent of children have received a shot, which is also similar to estimates at this time in 2021, the CDC said.
The new data comes as the nation’s health system deals with children’s hospitals being overcrowded with RSV patients, and as coronavirus cases are expected to rise sharply this winter.