Flu Season Is Starting Early and May Be Severe, Experts Warn

As outbreaks of flu and other respiratory conditions pop up across the United States, health experts say the nation may be facing an early and severe flu season.

“I’m concerned that we will have a very substantial influenza season coming up this year, very different from our two previous seasons,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease expert and professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told CNN.

“Here we are in the middle of October – not the middle of November – we’re already seeing scattered influenza cases, even hospitalized influenza cases, around the country,” he said. “So we know that this virus is now spreading out in the community already. It’s gathering speed already. It looks to me to be about a month early.”

“We’ve noted that flu activity is starting to increase across much of the country,” especially in the Southeast and south-central U.S., CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, told NBC News. “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.”

Flu season in the U.S. normally begins in October or November and peaks from December to February. The CDC’s weekly influenza report of Oct. 7 already showed “high” levels of activity in Texas, Georgia, the District of Columbia, and the North Mariana Islands.

In Georgia, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said “an unprecedented” number of children are showing up in emergency rooms with respiratory illnesses, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The hospital system did not provide specific numbers but said the surge of patients is 2 or 3 times the normal volume for this time of year.

In San Diego, a large number of students at Patrick Henry High School were absent because of respiratory and flu-like symptoms, health officials said. Local hospitals reported an uptick in emergency room visits for young people with symptoms of flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, San Diego County Public Health Services said in a news release.

The Cleveland Clinic is handling “a huge spike” in RSV cases, clinic infectious disease expert Frank Esper, MD, told NBC News. RSV cases normally happen in December and January but have come earlier the last 2 years, he said.

“Flu is on the rise, but it’s also all of these other viruses that got knocked off kilter,” he said. “This might be the new normal.”

The last two US. flu seasons were unusually mild, with experts saying that COVID social distancing helped curb the spread of the flu. As social distancing and safety measures such as masking are relaxed, it could be easier for the flu to spread this year. Flu cases are also rising in the Southern Hemisphere – a reliable forecast for flu season in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sources

CNN: “Flu ‘gathering speed’ across US as health officials and doctors prepare for a potentially rough season.”

CDC: “Weekly US Map: Influenza Summary Update.”

NBC News: “Flu off to an early start as CDC warns about potentially severe season.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Georgia has nation’s highest flu rate; children among the hardest-hit.”

San Diego County Public Health Services: “County Investigating Suspected Respiratory Outbreak at Patrick Henry High School.”

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