Flu season is already here with over 6,900 hospitalizations, 360 deaths

Do you know all those questions about whether you should wait a few weeks before flu season starts to get your flu shot? Well, forget the wait. Flu season has already arrived in the US, this year starting more than a month earlier than usual. And there are signs that the coming months could be a major flu in America. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Weekly US Influenza Surveillance Report called Fluviewthis season has had at least 880,000 flu illnesses, 6,900 flu-related hospitalizations, and 360 flu-related deaths, including one child to date in the US. These numbers far exceed the numbers seen at the same time of year in 2021 and 2020. In fact, the cumulative hospitalization rate for this past week — the 42nd week of 2022 — was higher than the rate for the 42nd week any year since 2010.

Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Agency at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, tweeted about this bad start to the flu season—bad if you’re human, but good if you’re the flu virus:

Rasmussen posted a tweet from Helen Branswell, its senior author STAT news, which included a chart of flu-related deaths among children from the fall of 2019. Notice the mound of green for the winter of 2019-2020 and then the relative lack of green for the winter of 2020-2021 and then some green for winter 2021-2022. Expect things to potentially get really green on this chart in a bad way for Winter 2021-2022.

Not all parts of the country have the same level of flu activity yet. It was the highest in the southeastern and south-central parts of the US so far. But the flu virus is nothing like that weekend in Las Vegas that involved a chandelier, a crow and whipped cream. What happened in one location will not stay in that location. Flu activity is expected to increase steadily across the US in the coming weeks.

Does this early start necessarily mean the rest of the flu season will be particularly bad? No, like the TV show True blood proved a strong start does not guarantee sustained high activity. But a number of factors portend an “I knew the flu was a problem” season. There is the problem that everyone forgot that Covid-19 is airborne. Many people seem to throw away face masks as if they were shades or tiny sunglasses. Also, many places don’t seem to bother keeping their rooms well ventilated and the air filtered and clean. These interventions and social distancing likely helped keep the 2020-2021 flu season virtually non-existent and the 2022-2022 season fairly mild.

As of week 42, this was a very influenza A season, with 97.7% of samples tested having influenza A strains. The most common specific strain was influenza A H3N2, found in 74.6% of samples , followed by (H1N1)pdm09 in 25.4% of them. This has been a not-so-influenza B season so far, with influenza B showing up in only 2.3% of samples tested. Keep in mind that this distribution could well change as the flu season progresses.

Getting the flu is definitely not the same as catching a cold. Compared to the common cold, which is usually self-limiting, leaving your head feeling like a warm pocket that’s been in the microwave too long, it’s common to have a “Flu Shook Me All Night Long” situation. The flu can really put you out of commission for several days. In addition, there is always the risk of even more serious complications. Family physician Gretchen LaSalle, MD, reminded on Twitter that “being healthy” is no reason not to get the flu shot:

As you can see, LaSalle included a tweet from Families Fighting Flu, a non-profit advocacy organization that describes itself as “dedicated to protecting children, families and communities from the flu” and includes “families whose loved ones have suffered serious medical complications or died from the flu.” Their tweet tells the tragic story of Brandon Gonzales, who went from being a healthy nine-year-old driving carts and eating pizza to dying of the flu.

Vaccination can not only prevent you from getting infected in the first place, but it can also reduce the severity of your symptoms if you do end up getting infected. Of course, the flu vaccine cannot provide 100% protection. Of course, getting vaccinated doesn’t mean it’s okay to dive into mosh pits or lick doorknobs with impunity. But as with clothing, some protection is much better than no protection. In most flu seasons, vaccine effectiveness tends to be at least 40%.

That’s why the CDC recommends getting the flu shot every year, as long as you’re at least six months old. If you are under six months old and reading this article, you should hold off on the vaccine until your immune system is more developed. But congratulations on your reading ability.

If you haven’t had your flu shot yet, you don’t have to wait any longer. It takes about two weeks for flu vaccine protection to fully kick in, so getting the shot now will protect you through National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day on November 15 and Thanksgiving next week.

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