Influenza monitors anticipate flu season to pick up from low last year, recommend flu shots

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 6:07 PM CST
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(WSAW) - The flu season was nearly non-existent last year, in large part due to the COVID-19 precautions people took. This season, influenza surveillance coordinators around the country are anticipating cases to pick up.

Tom Haupt, the influenza surveillance coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said there were a lot of people tested for the flu last year and those tests showed it was not circulating in the community anywhere near the typical levels.

Last season there were about 100 confirmed cases of the flu last year in Wisconsin, 21 people were hospitalized, and no one died. That is compared to the most recent typical flu season in 2019-2020 where there were about 36,000 confirmed cases, about 4,400 hospitalizations, and 183 deaths including three children.

It is still early in the season at this point this year, but there are about five times more cases now than there were this time last year; 29 compared to seven, respectively. It sounds like a small number of cases because it is small, however, the flu spreads easily, especially as COVID protocols are more relaxed this year. Haupt said the main strain going around currently is the AH3, which historically causes more severe cases of the flu.

After a Tuesday meeting with influenza surveillance coordinators around the country, Haupt stated most of the spread at this point is at college and university campuses in at least half a dozen states, including Florida, Rhode Island, and Colorado.

“...some involving college students more than 100 cases. So, we know it’s out there. We know it’s spreading, it just hasn’t hit the community population yet in many places, but we are continuing to monitor that very, very closely.”

There have not been outbreaks at universities in Wisconsin yet.

He noted what could be concerning is when these college students return home for holiday breaks to potentially more vulnerable family members. This is especially concerning for children who are at risk for severe disease from the flu. Tammy Miller, a nurse practitioner at the Aspirus clinic in Rhinelander said young children can get really high fevers and develop breathing issues.

“So, babies, if they get influenza, they often times don’t eat because it’s difficult to coordinate their breathing and coordinate feeding. So, that becomes an issue. They become dehydrated and they often times have to get hospitalized.”

Those under age 5 still cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 and while children often get a severe disease from COVID, there is nothing preventing them from contracting both COVID and the flu at the same time.

Of course, being hospitalized with the flu is not what anyone wants, but if hospitalizations were to increase, it would be difficult for medical systems to manage. Currently, hospitals around the state have about 90% of their beds filled with patients, and intensive care units are about 93% full. In the north-central region, the trajectory of patient hospitalizations for COVID is rising too.

Haupt and Miller’s recommendation is for people to get their flu shot to protect themselves, but especially to protect those most vulnerable to severe illness, especially the very young, the elderly, and those with health issues. The vaccination rate is right around what a typical year is at this point in the season, 23%, but it lags behind last year’s rate in the second week of November of 34%. Last year 44% of the state got the flu shot by the end of the season.

The flu and COVID vaccines can be administered in the same appointment without interfering with each other.

It can be difficult to know whether someone is showing symptoms of either COVID, the flu, or some other respiratory illness. The flu has an anti-viral treatment that can help reduce flu symptoms and spread within the body, whereas the is only one treatment for COVID that can be used in very particular situations. There is one single test that will test for both COVID-19 and influenza in the same swab. To do that or generally get tested for the flu, you are recommended to make an appointment with your health care provider. If you go to a COVID testing site, you will only be tested for COVID.

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