The United States is facing the highest hospitalization rates for the flu in more than a decade, with children and the elderly most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Influenza and respiratory syncytial virus had receded 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, viruses are staging a major comeback.
At least 1.6 million people have been sickened by the flu so far this season, 13,000 people have been hospitalized and 730 have died, according to CDC data.
About 3 patients are hospitalized with the flu out of every 100,000 people with the virus right now, which is the highest rate since 2010. The current hospitalization rate is nearly five times what was observed in the last pre-pandemic season in 2019.
Seniors and children under 5 face the greatest risk right now, with hospitalization rates about double that of the general population, according to CDC data.
“There are also early signs of influenza causing severe illness in these two groups of individuals,” Dr. Jose Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters during a briefing Friday.
In the southeastern United States, about 20% of respiratory samples test positive for a flu strain called H3N2 that has previously been associated with more severe illness in children and the elderly, Romero said. In the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, the H1N1 flu virus is growing in circulation, he said.
Cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are also on the rise in almost every region of the United States right now, Romero said. However, in most of the South and parts of the West, RSV is on the decline, and influenza is now on the rise, he said.
RSV is a common virus that most children get before the age of two. It usually causes cold-like symptoms, but can also result in serious illness requiring hospitalization for infants and the elderly.
Romero said mitigation measures implemented during Covid left a large portion of the US population uninfected with other common respiratory viruses, and as a consequence, those viruses are now on the rise because young children in particular have no immunity to previous infections.
The federal government is prepared to send medical teams and deliver supplies from the strategic national stockpile if hospitals are stretched beyond capacity, according to Dawn O’Connell, a senior official at the Health and Human Services Department. No state has yet requested such support, O’Connell said.
Romero encouraged everyone who is eligible to get their annual flu shot and Covid booster dose. Children under 8 who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time should receive two doses for the best protection, he said. There is no vaccine that protects against RSV.
Romero also encouraged people to take daily healthy precautions, such as covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and washing your hands frequently.
It is often difficult to tell the difference between flu, RSV and Covid symptoms. Romero said parents should seek medical attention for their children right away if they show any of the following warning signs: trouble breathing, blue lips or face, chest or muscle pain, dehydration (dry mouth, crying without tears, or not urinating for hours). or not alarm or interactive when you are awake.
The White House’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci also warned this week that Covid deaths are still far too high. Fauci said the United States is at a crossroads as omicron subvariants emerge that are resistant to key antibody treatments that protect the most vulnerable.
Fauci warned that hospitals could face a “negative trifecta” this winter from new Covid variants, influenza and RSV.
“It will be very confusing and may even stress the hospital system, especially for the pediatric population,” Fauci said.