Flu hospitalizations hit their highest level in a decade in October

The U.S. flu season got off to a quick and early start, with the highest hospitalization rates for this time of year in more than a decade, according to federal data.

Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed on Friday that there had been at least 880,000 cases of the flu this season, some 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 deaths, including one pediatric death. Data covers the week ending October 22.

Flu season in the United States tends to span from fall through spring, with peak activity between December and February. Right now, the southwest and south-central United States are seeing the most activity, the CDC said.

In the CDC’s flu surveillance network covering some 13 states, the cumulative rate of hospitalizations is 1.5 flu hospitalizations per 100,000 people. This is the highest rate seen at this time of year since the 2010-2011 season, the CDC said.

Another common virus, RSV, is also on the rise in the United States, putting pressure on pediatric hospitals, as well as a range of other childhood viruses. Public health experts predict an increase in Covid-19 cases as the country moves into fall and winter.

CDC data on Friday also showed a rising collection of Omicron subvariants, particularly BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which have raised concerns among virus experts because they appear to spread easily and evade infection. certain accumulated immune defenses. They are expected to collectively account for 27% of cases by October 29, according to the CDC’s latest estimates.

The BA.5 subvariant, of which these new versions are offshoots, has dropped to just under half of all cases, the CDC estimated. The rise in new subvariants comes as federal data shows that new hospital admissions related to Covid-19 in the United States have recently increased.

The flu’s early surge this year follows two seasons of minimal spread, most likely due to Covid-19 mitigation measures including masking and distancing which have kept other viruses at bay. Now, as more people head indoors during the fall and winter months and students move into classrooms, fewer people are taking precautions.

“We’re seeing increases as the weather gets colder, and unfortunately we’re entering a season where people are going to be more indoors, closer together, and protocols aren’t being followed as strictly,” said Dr. Laolu Fayanju, family medicine specialist and regional medical director at Oak Street Health in Ohio.

A lack of recent exposure to the virus after two years of limited spread coupled with low flu vaccination rates also likely leaves the United States with a weaker immune defense than in previous seasons, doctors said. The CDC and other health agencies have encouraged all children six months and older and all adults, with rare exceptions, to get annual flu shots this year, ideally by the end of October.

An estimated 21% of adults have been vaccinated against the flu this year, which is similar to estimates from the same period last year, the CDC said, basing its estimates on an Ipsos survey conducted in early October. An estimated 22% of children have also been vaccinated against the flu, according to the CDC’s National Immunization Survey.

It’s too early to tell how effective this year’s vaccine will be, the CDC said. But the most commonly reported flu virus, a strain of influenza A called H3N2, is a good match for this year’s vaccine formation, health experts said.

In Chile last season, where the flu vaccine used the same H3N2 component that is currently used in the United States, the vaccine’s effectiveness against flu hospitalization was 49%, according to a recent CDC report. The US vaccine could provide similar benefits if the same flu strains circulate here, but it’s too early to tell, the CDC said.

Write to Brianna Abbott at brianna.abbott@wsj.com

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