America is set for a ‘severe’ flu outbreak this winter, one of the country’s top doctors has warned.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the country was ‘ripe’ for a resurgence because it has low levels of immunity.
Influenza has been largely sidelined during the pandemic due to lockdowns and social restrictions, leaving Americans with little protection against the seasonal bug.
But there are signs the flu is making a comeback as latest data shows cases have quadrupled in recent weeks — months before the virus normally strikes.
Flu season typically runs from late October to May, picking up in December and peaking in February.
But the southern hemisphere – which is normally a precursor for the US – suffered an early and brutal wave during its winter earlier in the year.
There are also concerns about flu vaccine uptake, with just 12million Americans having received the shot so far.
Dr Walensky told NBC News: ‘We’ve noted that flu activity is starting to increase across much of the country.
‘Not everybody got flu vaccinated last year, and many people did not get the flu. So that makes us ripe to have potentially a severe flu season.’
Cases of the flu have surged since August, quadrupling from the week that ended on August 6 to the week that ended on October 1. Experts are warning that this year’s flu season will be more devastating than usual
Georgia, Washington DC, Texas and the Northern Mariana Islands all already have high flu counts, according to CDC data from the week ending 1 October
CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said America was ‘ripe’ for a severe flu season, as many people did not get the flu last year, putting them more at risk this winter
Latest official data shows there were more than 1,000 patients with flu in the week ending October 1 across the US — up 303 per cent compared to the first week of August.
This is a vast underestimate because the US does not routinely test for influenza in the same way as Covid.
Test positivity — the share of swabs for the virus that are coming back positive — has risen from 0.49 per cent to 2.5 per cent in the same time.
Where did the flu go the past two years… and is it already back?
The flu’s spread was massively curbed over the first two years of the Covid pandemic.
Viral interference from Covid combined with mitigation measures like masking and restrictions on indoor events led to little spread of the virus.
As a result, many did not build up natural immunity to the virus in the past two years and have neglected getting their yearly jab.
Experts fear that this year’s flu season will be the worst in years after both New Zealand and Australia were slammed by the annual nuisance in the southern hemisphere.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, issued a warning about the rampant spread of the flu in the Southern Hemisphere in August.
New York and some southern states like Texas, Georgia and New Mexico were already experiencing surges of the virus in September – before flu season even officially starts this month.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Unified School District announced on Wednesday that it was dealing with hundreds of absences at Patrick Henry High School in San Carlos, with 40 per cent of students off sick.
Roughly 1,000 of the 2,600 students at the school were off with a sore throat, cough, congestion and fever.
The District said all Covid tests have come back negative but that students were testing positive for flu.
The Californian county is now checking other local schools for similar outbreaks.
And it’s not just flu on the rise.
The region’s only children’s hospital, Rady’s Children’s Hospital, has admitted around 250 children with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) infections.
Some cases have ended up as viral pneumonia — needing oxygen.
About 20 per cent of kids in the hospital’s intensive care units on Wednesday were admitted because of serious breathing problems from RSV-related lung inflammation.
Cases of RSV usually crop up in December and January, but over the past couple of years RSV season has hit earlier, during summer and early autumn, potentially due to Covid lockdowns altering the spread of viruses.
And last week, New Yorkers were urged to get their flu shot ‘as soon as possible’ as the state grappled with nearly four times as many cases as last year.
The New York Department of Health described the current outbreak as ‘early and aggressive’, and warned that it showed no signs of slowing.
There were 596 confirmed flu cases recorded in the week ending October 1 — compared to just 150 this time last year.
Both figures are massive underestimates because flu is not routinely tested for in the same way Covid is.
Experts fear the early surge in flu — which is also happening in Washington DC and several southern states — will cause a ‘twindemic’ this winter when Covid is expected to rebound.
There has been barely any flu for the past few years after the virus was sidelined by the more infectious Covid virus and lockdowns shut it out also.
And Americans appear to be suffering vaccine fatigue after constant Covid shot rollouts.
There is no shot for RSV, but there is for flu.
By the week ending 3 September, Texas, New Mexico and Delaware’s flu rates had tipped into high levels, with the Northern Mariana Islands close behind with moderate case numbers
At the start of August, flu case rates were relatively stable across the US. Washington DC was the only US area with moderate levels. New Mexico had low rates, and the rest of the states had minimal cases
So far, approximately 12million flu vaccines have been done by pharmacists and doctors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises everyone six months and older to get an annual flu vaccine.
But less than half of US adults (49 per cent) plan to get the flu shot, a survey found.
This was despite over 60 per cent agreeing the vaccine is the best way to protect against death and hospitalization.
1,005 American adults completed the survey from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in August this year.
41 per cent said they were unsure or do not plan to get the shot during the upcoming flu season.
The most common reasons for not getting vaccinated included thinking vaccines do not work very well and being concerned about potential side effects.
Others said they never get the flu or are worried about getting flu from the vaccine.
And one in five Americans who are more at risk of complications from flu said they won’t get the shot.