The flu is hitting the US hard, with 880,000 cases of lab-confirmed influenza illness, 6,900 hospitalisations and 360 flu-related deaths recorded in the nation this year.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the last year there was a comparable flu "burden" was 2009 during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. The flu burden is a metric used by the CDC to determine the severity of the flu.
“It’s unusual, but we’re coming out of an unusual covid pandemic that has really affected influenza and other respiratory viruses that are circulating,” Dr Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist who heads the CDC’s domestic influenza surveillance team, told The Washington Post.
The extent of the extant infections is unusual considering the flu season generally begins in October.
Infections are clustered primarily in the south and the southeast, according to the CDC, but will likely spread up the Atlantic coast in the coming weeks and months.
Dr William Schaffner, the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post that the data collected so far portends a difficult influenza season.
"The data are ominous," he told the paper. "Not only is flu early, it also looks very severe. This is not just a preview of coming attractions. We’re already starting to see this movie. I would call it a scary movie."
He said he was also worried by the public’s slow reaction to taking the influenza vaccine, noting vaccination rates were lower this year than they have been in previous years.
This year, around 128 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed. By this time last year, there were already 139 million doses distributed, and the year prior there were 154 million doses distributed.
"That makes me doubly worried," he said, noting that is "certainly looks like the start of what could be the worst flu in season in 13 years."
To make matters worse for already often overworked and short-staffed healthcare providers, coronavirus cases are expected to ramp up again as the winter begins in earnest.
The silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic was that the flu during those years was kept mostly at bay due to social distancing and masking measures preventing its spread. Now that people have largely returned to something more closely resembling normal, the flu is back and spreading fast.
Thankfully, Dr Brammer confirmed that the current flu vaccine available is strong against the current strain of the virus, H3N2.
The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older gets a flu vaccine, ideally by the end of October. The vaccine takes approximately two weeks before it offers full protection, and the flu is contagious before an infected person begins showing symptoms.
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