Flu season continues to intensify in the US, and holiday gatherings could make it worse
Americans gathered for Thanksgiving last week in the midst of a flu season that’s worse than whoever was inside more than a decade, and experts continue to urge caution as multiple respiratory viruses circulate at high levels across the country.
A growing number of US states — now 33 — are experiencing “high” or “very high” activity of respiratory viruses, and seasonal flu activity remains “elevated across the country,” according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the week ending November 19, nearly 1 in 10 deaths nationwide (9.4%) were caused by pneumonia, flu or Covid-19 – well above the seasonal baseline of around 6%. And the CDC estimates there have been at least 6.2 million cases, 53,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from the flu this season.
Influenza and RSV, another respiratory virus that particularly affects children, hit harder and earlier than usual this season after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the past two seasons and as the nation relaxes preventive measures.
While flu continues to rise, RSV has shown signs of slowing across the country, but positive test rates remain higher than they have been in years and cumulative hospitalization rates are about 10 times higher than normal for this point in the season. In less than two months, this season’s RSV hospitalization rate is already approaching the overall RSV hospitalization rate from the entire 2018-19 season.
Thousands of people are still dying from Covid-19 every week.
The latest surveillance data does not include Thanksgiving week or the effects of holiday gatherings. Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths reached record highs during last year’s holiday season – and this holiday season could also bring an increase in the spread.
Although experts expect this year to be better than last year, they stressed the importance of preventive measures in the days leading up to Thanksgiving to prevent the spread of all respiratory diseases.
“We have seen that in some regions the number of RSV is starting to drop. The number of flu patients continues to rise. And we’re concerned that after the holiday gathering, a lot of people get together, that we could see an increase in Covid-19 cases as well,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN last week. “It’s all in a nutshell to say do everything you can to prevent it by getting your vaccines.”
CDC data shows that only 12% of eligible people in the US have received their updated Covid-19 vaccination, and about 1 in 5 people nationwide are still completely unvaccinated. Flu shots are also lagging behind, with millions fewer vaccinations at this point in the season than in the past two years.
However, there is no vaccine to protect against RSV, and children’s hospitals remain more crowded than usual despite improving trends in the spread of the virus.
Pediatric hospital beds have been fuller than usual for months. Children’s health leaders called this month for a formal emergency declaration from the federal government to support hospitals and communities amid “an alarming surge in pediatric respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza, along with a continuing emergency in children’s mental health.”
With the holiday season — and flu season — underway, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of the potential for an emergency.
“When you have very little wiggle room for intensive care beds, when you have almost all of the intensive care beds occupied, that’s bad for kids who have RSV and need intensive care. But it’s also taking up all the beds, and kids who have a number of other illnesses that require intensive care or critical care don’t have a bed for that,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “So if you get into that situation, it’s approaching an emergency.”
Still, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s co-ordinator of the Covid-19 response, said he was confident the US would weather the onslaught of respiratory viruses.
“As far as hospital capacity is concerned, we have been in contact with all jurisdictions in the country. We’ve been very clear, if you need additional assistance, the federal government is ready to help, ready to send support personnel, ready to support, send additional supplies,” Jha said on CNN last week. “I’m confident we’ll get through this, especially if people step up and protect their families by getting the Covid and flu vaccine.”