Influenza hospitalizations this early in the season are higher than they have been in a decade, according to the CDC, with 14 pediatric deaths reported so far.
“Since October 1, there have already been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations, and 4,500 deaths from flu,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, on a call with reporters on Monday, held in part to kick off National Influenza Vaccination Week.
Flu hospitalizations nearly doubled the week of Thanksgiving (19,593) compared with the prior week (11,378) and are close to 40 times higher than the same week last year (495).
“Hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen at this time of year in a decade,” said Sandra Fryhofer, MD, an internist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and chair of the American Medical Association board.
“It’s a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season,” warned Fryhofer, who recommended that people roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated before it gets even worse.
“We all have booster fatigue,” she said, “but understand you could get really, really sick this year and ruin your holiday celebrations.” Fryhofer added that it takes 2 weeks to build antibodies following vaccination, making now a good time to get the shot.
And if you’ve had the flu, be aware that you can get it again.
“The only thing worse than getting flu once in a season is getting it again,” Fryhofer explained. “You should still get vaccinated once you recover from acute illness to keep from getting it again with a different strain.”
This year, influenza vaccines are “well matched to the viruses currently circulating,” she added. The flu shots contain protection for two influenza A and two influenza B virus strains. Of influenza A viruses detected and subtyped this season, 79% have been A(H3N2) and 21% have been A(H1N1).
The CDC recommends influenza vaccination particularly for children, immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, and people 65 and over.
It was not clear if the pediatric deaths reported so far this season involved unvaccinated children, but Fryhofer noted that previous data showed about 80% of influenza deaths occur in unvaccinated persons.
Pregnant women who get the flu shot also protect their newborns, who are not eligible for vaccination before they are 6 months of age, Fryhofer said. “If you’re not doing it for you, do it for your baby.”
For individuals age 65 and up, the quadrivalent high-dose inactivated vaccine, quadrivalent recombinant vaccine, or quadrivalent adjuvanted inactivated vaccine are recommended over standard-dose, unadjuvanted inactivated influenza vaccines.
So far this year, vaccine uptake is about 12% lower in pregnant women and 5% lower in children than at this time last season.
Uptake in non-white communities, particularly Latino communities is usually even lower, despite data showing influenza hospitalizations in this group are about 20% higher. Hispanic adults accounted for the lowest vaccination rate among all racial or ethnic groups, with a 37.9% vaccination rate compared to 53.9% of white adults, according to the CDC.
Walensky said that antiviral drugs are available, especially for those at highest risk for severe illness, and should be sought out as soon as symptoms appear.
“There are prescription antivirals to treat both flu and COVID-19,” she said. “Immediate treatment is especially important for people who are at higher risk for complications from respiratory disease.”
Circulating COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza make this year a “confusing respiratory infection season,” noted Fryhofer. “Figuring out what’s making people sick is going to be a conundrum.”
And she added that masking is recommended wherever illness is more pronounced: “You don’t have to wait for CDC action to put a mask on.”