Hospitalizations due to the flu are on the rise. Here is who is most at risk. — Eat this, not that
The flu season arrived early this year, and in combination with RSV and COVID-19, caused a perfect storm of illness ahead of schedule. New data from the CDC shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by the flu virus, with blacks hospitalized at a rate nearly 4 times higher than the corresponding rate for white patients. Hospitalizations were also 30% higher for Native Americans and 20% higher for Hispanics. “Yes, there is no question that there are certain groups of Americans who have been at greater risk,” says head of White House task force on Covid Dr. Ashish Jha. “We know that people who are poorer, people who are racial and ethnic minorities throughout the pandemic were more exposed to the virus, had less access to high-quality care. That was our main focus, closing that gap.”
Some of this can be attributed to lower rates of vaccination against COVID among these communities, which the CDC also points out is understandable given the aforementioned poorer access to quality health care and distrust of doctors and government. CDC urges everyone who is eligible to get a flu shot and booster shot as soon as possible. “We’ve had two mild flu seasons and that means we could be ripe for a severe season because people aren’t taking all the precautions they did for COVID-19 which also affected the flu,” says CDC epidemiologist Carla Black. “People haven’t had a natural disease for two years, so the natural immunity is weaker.”
“What happens in the weeks and months ahead will have a big impact on how the winter goes, and what happens this winter is very much up to us as the American people,” said Dr. Jha. “Don’t wait—get your new flu shot and your new COVID vaccine today. If Americans did this, we could save hundreds of lives every day this winter. Since the Commonwealth Fund just released a new report, a new analysis, they estimate that we can save as many as 90,000 lives and almost a million hospitalizations if most eligible Americans get their updated vaccines. Now, that’s just based on the vaccines, which are remarkable and will make a big difference. But if we do better, if people get tested when they have symptoms — we know that testing leads to diagnosis, diagnosis leads to treatment. And the treatments that we have today for free keep people out of the hospital, keep them out of the ICU, prevent the worst outcome of everything.” Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss them Sure signs you’ve already had COVID.
Medical experts are reassuring the public that it’s perfectly fine to get a flu shot and a COVID booster at the same time. “According to the CDC, seasonal flu activity has increased across the country. Last week we saw two more flu-related deaths in children,” says Andrea Garcia, JD, MPHAMA Vice President for Science, Medicine and Public Health.
“A total of seven pediatric flu deaths have already been reported this season. The CDC estimates that flu has caused at least 4.4 million illnesses, 38,000 hospitalizations, and 2,100 deaths so far. We know that the annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against the flu, and the CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get that flu shot every year. And we think it’s also important to remember that patients can get the flu shot and the COVID vaccine at the same time.”
“Absolutely. The CDC recommends that you get the flu shot and the booster shot at the same time,” says the infectious disease expert. Sabrina A. Assoumou. “It’s safe — we know it’s OK to get both at the same time. And getting both at once means you don’t have to go back for another shot, which may or may not happen… Experience with other vaccines has shown that are how our bodies develop protection, known as the immune response, and possible side effects after vaccination are generally the same when given alone or with other vaccines.”
RSV cases have skyrocketed, putting enormous pressure on hospitals and medical facilities. “If we look at CDC data, the RSV hospitalization rate is 10 times higher than normal for this point in the season,” says Garcia. “We know that more than three-quarters of pediatric hospital beds are being used nationwide. That’s up from about two-thirds in the last two years. And 171 out of every 100,000 infants under six months old were hospitalized with RSV in the week that ended Nov. 12. That’s more than double the rate of RSV newborn hospitalizations last year and seven times the rate in 2018, the last full season we saw before the pandemic.
“Last week ahead of the holidays, we saw the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association request a formal emergency declaration from the federal government to support hospitals and communities amid an alarming increase in pediatric respiratory illnesses, including RSV and influenza. Health Care Leaders wrote that we urgent financial support and flexibility are needed in line with what has been provided to respond to waves of COVID. And Oregon last week became the first state to declare a state of emergency in response to that wave of RSV.”
dr. Jha recommends all older Americans get vaccinated. “In the last six months, eight months or so, we’ve seen a clear shift toward more and more older Americans dying,” dr. Jha says. “Look, this virus has always hit older Americans more, but in the last six, eight months, it’s gotten really extreme. Almost 70 percent of the deaths are in people over 75. But the biggest problem here is, almost every one of these tests now can prevent.
“If people were up to date on their vaccines and if people were treated if they had a breakthrough infection, we could get almost every one of those deaths — we could prevent almost every one of those deaths. That’s our focus right now, is to try to do everything what can we do to reduce that death rate. If you look at, for example, our death rates compared to many other high-income countries, some other countries have lower death rates than we do. What makes that different and explains it? It’s almost all vaccination rates in the elderly people. That’s the only deciding factor. There are other things that make a difference as well. As I mentioned earlier, the treatments make a really big difference.”
The pandemic — and flu season — is still dangerous for people with weakened immune systems. “Even if we leave aside the emotional undertones, when a pandemic becomes endemic (although the latest estimates are that about 94% of Americans have at least had covid by now), it does not mean that the pandemic is over, because each new variant presents its own special challenges and threats ,” says Mark Schlesingerprofessor of health policy and associate of the Institution for Social and Political Studies.
“By perpetuating the delusion that the pandemic will have a clear finish line — and that finish line could be right around the corner — we risk delaying the important work that needs to be done,” says Cary Gross, professor of medicine and public health and director of the National Clinician Scholars Program at Yale. “We must rebuild and reinvest in our public health system to provide preventative options. We must ensure access to health care and address the fact that our nation’s health care system is more vulnerable than we thought.”
Although COVID, influenza and RSV are all respiratory diseases, they spread differently. “With COVID, we’ve focused appropriately on air quality, but many of these viruses can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces, which is why hand washing and cleaning contaminated surfaces is so important,” says Thomas Murray, MD, PhD.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were wiping our fruits, vegetables and everything with bleach, until we discovered that COVID is not spread by surfaces—it is spread by sneezing, coughing and respiratory droplets and aerosols,” says Scott Roberts, an infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine. “RSV spreads much more through contaminated surfaces. A child rubs snot on their hands and puts their hand on someone else, and then that child puts their hand in their mouth and can get infected. Hand washing and surface cleaning is more critical with RSV than with COVID. “
The flu can be spread through both contact and droplets, so Dr. Roberts recommends respiratory etiquette—”That means coughing into a tissue and throwing it in the trash right away,” he says. “And if you or your child is sick, stay away from others until you’re better and have no fever,” says Dr. Murray. “And if you have a baby, especially a newborn, be very careful about who visits you in the first few months of life. You only want people who wash their hands and don’t have symptoms to be around the baby.”
Follow the basics of public health and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live – get vaccinated or boosted as soon as possible; if you live in an area with a low vaccination rate, wear an N95 face maskdon’t travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don’t go indoors with people you don’t hide with (especially bars), maintain good hand hygiene and to protect your life and the lives of others, don’t visit any of these 35 places where you are most likely to get COVID.