Over the past few weeks, flu activity has been increasing across many states, with some regions seeing very high or extreme levels of flu, COVID-19 and RSV cases leading up to and during the holiday season. Several factors, including relaxed COVID precautions and holiday travel and gatherings, may be contributing to the significant spread of respiratory illnesses.
Nine States at Peak Flu Levels
As of mid-December, CDC data showed that nine states – Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina and Virginia – had reached peak levels for flu, meeting the threshold of over 10% of outpatient doctor visits being for influenza-like illnesses. Several other states along the southwest and southeast regions of the country are also seeing high activity.
Key Details from High Flu States:
|Flu activity rated as “Very High”
|Flu hospitalizations more than doubled over one week in December
|Nearly 13,000 flu cases confirmed since start of flu season; over 850 flu hospitalizations in one week
|Nearly 4,000 lab-confirmed flu cases
|Flu activity level is “Very High”
|Almost 2,900 people hospitalized with flu so far this season
|Leads nation in flu activity; hospitalizations up over 200% from previous week
|Flu activity level is “Very High”
|Almost 3,000 people hospitalized with flu so far this season
High levels of flu in these states could indicate that more regions may soon experience increased flu activity as well, particularly with people traveling and gathering for the holidays against the backdrop of relaxed COVID-19 precautions compared to previous years.
Spikes in Holiday Hospital Visits Across US
The week leading up to Christmas this year saw concerning spikes in hospital visits and admissions for flu and other respiratory illnesses:
Conway Medical Center in South Carolina reported a 30% increase in hospital admissions, many flu cases requiring intensive care. Doctor expects further increase in illnesses through New Year’s celebrations.
Mississippi has seen a “significant rise” in flu, COVID-19 and RSV, including a 252% week-to-week increase in flu outbreaks in December.
Illinois reported over 850 flu hospitalizations in the week ending December 17. Children’s hospitals are over 90% capacity.
New Mexico led the country in positive flu tests, with hospitalizations more than tripling over one week in December.
In many regions, health experts highlight relaxed attitudes around COVID-19 precautions compared to 2020-2021 as a key driver of increased spread, on top of holiday travel and indoor gatherings. Mask usage has declined, which may have also reduced immunity.
Concerns Over Severe Illness, Further Spread
With flu activity still expected to increase over the next few months and peak between December and February, CDC officials and health providers are concerned about more instances of severe illness, especially for high-risk groups like young children, seniors and those with chronic conditions.
Added concerns this year include:
The possibility of co-infections of flu and COVID-19, which early studies suggest lead to higher risk of severe disease and death
Shortages of flu antivirals like Tamiflu, especially the children’s version, which could limit treatment options
Hospital systems already strained with capacity issues and staffing shortages now seeing a surge in respiratory illnesses, raising worries about resources for severely ill patients
To limit further spread of flu, COVID-19 and RSV during the rest of the holiday season and winter months, health organizations emphasize measures like getting vaccinated, wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, improving ventilation and proper hand hygiene. They also advise staying home when sick and testing to confirm illnesses.
Longer Flu Season Expected
Many experts predict this flu season could last into May or June, longer than a typical season. Several factors could prolong flu activity:
Holiday travel may spread flu to new regions that could then experience local outbreaks
Global travel links could introduce new strains of flu from other parts of the world
Reduced population immunity after two very mild flu seasons could sustain transmission
Health officials will continue monitoring emerging strains, vaccination rates, hospitalization trends and geographic spread of activity over the coming months. They may need to adjust vaccine formulas for the 2023-2024 season depending on which strains predominate in the latter part of the current flu season.
Staying vigilant with prevention measures, testing to confirm illness, and seeking treatment when appropriate will remain essential tools for individuals and communities to get through an unpredictable flu season. Health organizations also stress developing contingency plans in case of staffing or resource shortages at local health facilities.
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