Respiratory illnesses including flu are spiking across parts of the Southern United States, with South Carolina and Louisiana reporting the highest flu activity in the country. Health officials are urging precautions as hospitals face strains from increased admissions.
Flu Hospitalizations Reach New Highs
South Carolina has seen a rapid rise in flu activity over the past few weeks, with the state now tied for the highest flu levels nationwide along with Louisiana according to CDC data. Hospitalizations for the flu in South Carolina have climbed to over 4 times the levels seen over the past 5 seasons.
Dr. Jonathan Knoche, a medical director at Prisma Health, noted “We’re at our peak right now as far as volumes when it relates to the emergency department and when it relates to our inpatient hospitals.”
Other doctors have emphasized that this year’s flu season started much earlier, and the predominant H3N2 strain of flu this year tends to hit the elderly harder.
|South Carolina Flu Hospitalizations 2022-2023
|Week 47 (November)
|Week 51 (December)
Table showing weekly flu hospitalizations in South Carolina rising over 400% from November to December. (Source)
With hospitals already dealing with capacity constraints, the spike in flu admissions is putting further strain on the system. Prisma Health Children’s hospital is operating over capacity daily caring for young kids with the flu or RSV.
Louisiana Also Seeing All-Time High Flu Rates
Louisiana has seen a similar surge in flu hospitalizations, with the CDC reporting the state tied with South Carolina for the highest flu levels nationwide for the week ending December 17th. Louisiana had seen minimal flu activity for the past 2 years during the pandemic, but cases have come roaring back this season.
The predominant H3N2 flu strain this year tends to impact the elderly more severely. Louisiana’s flu hospitalization rate among seniors aged 65+ soared to be nearly 5 times higher than any of the past 5 seasons last week.
Cynthia Brumfield, director of the state Office of Public Health Region 2, commented that “All indicators are showing this is more severe compared to prior seasons. Emergency department visits are higher, hospitalizations are exponentially higher and geographic spread continues to increase.”
Southern States See Increased Disease Activity
The flu surge has not been limited to South Carolina and Louisiana. CDC data shows 9 states have now reached the “very high” threshold for respiratory illness activity as of December 24th – which also warns of strain on healthcare systems.
The Southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia are all reporting “very high” flu levels currently. Arkansas was the other state meeting the threshold.
Georgia has witnessed a significant spike in flu hospitalizations the week of Christmas, soaring to over 4.5 times the previous rate. Mississippi’s department of health warned the state is seeing widespread flu outbreaks earlier than usual, while Alabama activated a limited state of emergency last week allowing expanded temporary capacity at healthcare facilities to meet demand.
Doctors emphasize it is not too late to get the flu shot to reduce severity of illness. The flu vaccine formulation was recently updated to better match circulating strains.
What’s Causing the Sudden Surge?
There are likely several factors contributing to the swift acceleration in flu activity concentrated in parts of the South. The pandemic disrupted typical seasonal virus transmission the past few years, which may have reduced population immunity. The newly updated flu shot also appears less effective against the dominant H3N2 strain than prior seasons.
Additionally, many Southern states eased COVID-19 restrictions much earlier than other parts of the country – leading to increased social interaction and virus spread. The region has generally lagged in vaccination rates including for the flu. Changing weather dynamics may have also played a role in the geographical spread of the outbreaks.
CDC experts expect flu activity to remain elevated for at least several more weeks, but the worst of the season may still be ahead in January or February before gradually declining in late spring. Officials continue to advise getting vaccinated, wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, and staying home when sick to reduce transmission risk.
Longer Term Outlook
Assuming the flu follows typical seasonal patterns, health officials believe Southern states may be reaching or approaching the peak of the outbreak already while other regions have yet to experience the brunt of it.
Northern states just entering colder months conducive to flu transmission could see increasing disease activity into 2023 before gradually declining by March or April. However, the unusual nature of this flu season with an early and severe spike in the South adds uncertainty to projections.
If flu cases do begin tapering off in parts of the South in the coming weeks, it could alleviate pressures on strained healthcare systems before the situation grows more dire. But hospitals nationwide will likely continue facing capacity issues over the next 2 months stemming from these simultaneous and serious respiratory outbreaks concentrated in different regions.
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