A dramatic spike in flu activity has hit states across the Southeastern US in recent weeks, with Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi among the areas reporting surges following holiday gatherings. Officials warn this could be just the beginning of an intense flu season that may not yet have peaked.
Southern States See Sharp Increases in Flu Visits, Hospitalizations
Emergency rooms and healthcare providers in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi have noted alarmingly high levels of influenza or flu-like illness in recent patient visits over the past several weeks, according to data from the CDC and statements from state health departments.
Alabama has seen flu cases spike in the weeks following Christmas and New Years celebrations across the state. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported last week that 7.46% of ER visits were due to patients with flu or flu-like symptoms during the final week of December, more than triple the baseline average. Neighboring states have noted similarly high rates of around 7-8% as the season ramps up.
Triple Threat of Flu, COVID, and RSV Striking Hardest
Doctors in Alabama and beyond are raising concerns around the continued threat of COVID combining with a more severe flu season and the impact of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) to create a “triple threat” for residents. State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris discussed the confluence of factors leading to packed emergency rooms:
“A lot of COVID, a lot of flu, and then RSV in kids that we saw during the summer… Now we’re seeing all three of them circulating all at once. For hospitals, this is going to be a really tough season.”
Harris and CDC experts warn this elevated activity may continue for weeks or months as flu season typically peaks between December and February.
Flu Hitting Young Patients Harder Than Usual
While flu season often hits the very young and very old hardest, the CDC has noted unusually high hospitalization rates so far for children under 5 years old and especially those under 6 months old. With children back in school sessions after the holidays, health departments emphasize the need for vaccination and prevention awareness to slow further spread.
“Our youngest children are very vulnerable to diseases like flu and COVID-19,” said Dr. Jose Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Getting children aged 6 months and older vaccinated is the best defense, he said.
Vaccination Crucial But Rates Lag Behind Projections
The CDC recently estimated about 2 million more flu vaccination doses have been distributed so far this season compared to last season. However, rates are still well below goals nationally and vaccination coverage estimates skew lower across Southeastern states relative to some other regions.
|Estimated Vaccination Rate Through 11/26/22
Doctors emphasize the flu shot can still reduce severity of illness and save lives even this late into the onset of elevated flu activity. Other protective measures like hand washing, covering coughs, and staying home when sick are also critical prevention steps individuals should take.
What Comes Next? Tough Season Likely to Continue for Weeks
State health officials caution that flu cases will likely continue to rise in the coming weeks even as the pace of growth may start slowing in some regions. Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Harris projects activity reaching a peak by early-to-mid February based on past seasons before declining, though the path depends greatly on mitigation steps taken in communities.
In the meantime, hospitals face mounting strains from patient surges alongside staffing shortages and limited beds. The wider impacts may include more schools and workplaces dealing with high absence rates as well as growing debate around mitigation policies. Health experts urge residents to remain vigilant and proactive as this difficult flu season continues unfolding across many Southeastern states in the early weeks of 2024.
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