The flu is ‘picking up speed’ in the US as health officials prepare for a potentially severe season


American health officials are growing concerned about this year’s flu season — and are already seeing signs that the virus is spreading.

As the 2022-23 flu season begins, a California high school faces a “high number of absences” among students due to possible cases of the flu. Influenza activity in the United States often begins to increase in October and usually peaks between December and February.

“We can confirm that there is a high number of absences at Henry High School due to possible influenza,” Samer Nagy, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Unified School District, said in an email to CNN on Thursday. On Wednesday, there were about 1,000 absences out of 2,600 students.

“So far, tests for COVID have been negative, but several students have tested positive for the flu,” Naji said. “Typical signs and symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny nose, fever and other symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. We are in close contact with San Diego County Public Health.”

San Diego County Public Health confirmed to CNN that they are investigating a large outbreak of respiratory and flu-like symptoms among students at Patrick Henry High School — as well as Del Norte High School in Poway, California.

“Del Norte High School (in the Poway Unified School District) had almost 400 students absent yesterday and Tuesday with cold and flu-like symptoms,” Christine Pike, spokeswoman for the Poway Unified School District, told CNN on Wednesday. “Health officials told us that cold/flu season is definitely here and hitting schools harder now that the COVID restrictions are no longer in place.”

San Diego County Public Health Services announced Wednesday that it is “too early” to determine the cause of the outbreaks and that the county is evaluating.

“We are coordinating with local school districts and checking with other school campuses to try to understand why so many students were affected so suddenly,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the district’s deputy public health officer, said in a statement Wednesday. .

“Unfortunately, we expected this to be a tough flu season, and along with COVID-19, other respiratory viruses are also making a quick comeback,” Kaiser said. “If you haven’t already, now is the time to get your flu and COVID-19 shots to get the extra protection that vaccines provide.”

An early increase in seasonal flu activity has been reported across most of the United States, with the nation’s Southeast and South Central regions reporting the highest rates of flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a thousand patients have been hospitalized with the flu this week, the agency said.

“Nationally, the rate of positive influenza samples in clinical laboratories is increasing; however, activity varies by region,” CDC researchers wrote in the agency’s latest weekly flu report, released Friday.

Although current flu activity is still generally low, the CDC report found that activity is increasing across most of the country, with three jurisdictions experiencing moderate activity and six jurisdictions experiencing high or very high activity.

This week, 3.3 percent of respiratory samples sent to clinical labs tested positive for the flu, according to the new report. That’s a jump from 0.1% of samples that tested positive at this time last year and 0.2% of samples that tested positive at this time in 2020.

However, the new data suggests the nation may be returning to pre-Covid flu levels, as at this time in 2019, 3.1% of specimens were reported as flu positive.

The new CDC report also said 1,322 patients were hospitalized with the flu this week and there were three flu-related deaths in children this week.

Overall, the most commonly reported flu viruses this week were influenza A (H3N2), according to the report, and 2.6 percent of outpatient visits to health care providers were for respiratory illnesses that include symptoms such as fever plus cough or sore throat. the throat. This is above the national baseline of 2.5%.

“The annual flu shot is the best way to protect against the flu. Vaccination helps prevent infection and may also prevent serious outcomes in people who are vaccinated but still get the flu,” according to the report.

“The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu shot, ideally by the end of October. There are also prescription flu antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu-like illness; they should start as early as possible.

Predicting what flu activity might look like in a given year can be difficult, but doctors are bracing for a “very significant” flu season, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

“I’m concerned that we’re going to have a very significant flu season this year, very different from our two previous seasons,” he said.

Signs of increased flu activity were first seen in the Southern Hemisphere this summer, and as more people in the Northern Hemisphere ease Covid-19 restrictions and return to socializing without masks and in large crowds, flu cases have been reported. The widespread number of cases so early in the flu season is unusual.

“Here we are in mid-October — not mid-November — we’re already seeing scattered flu cases, even hospitalized flu cases across the country,” Schaffner, whose Vanderbilt University Medical Center is part of a surveillance network that tracks hospitalized cases of flu.

“We know this virus is already spreading in the community. It’s picking up speed now. I think it’s about a month early,” Schaffner said.

When people started isolating, social distancing and masking to slow the spread of Covid-19 in early 2020, the flu almost disappeared in the US. As a result, most people have not been exposed to influenza for several years, which means that immunity to influenza viruses may be low and emphasizes the need for vaccination.

U.S. health officials are encouraging people to get flu shots as soon as possible, said Adrian Casalotti, director of government and community affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

“There’s definitely a push now to put the flu shot at the top of people’s priority lists. “We’re all concerned after seeing what’s happening in the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia, that this year’s flu season could be really, really bad, frankly,” Casalotti said.

Concerns have grown as officials also prepare for possible spikes this winter of Covid-19 and other common respiratory viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a leading cause of lower respiratory tract infection in infants and young children.

Casalotti said flu outbreaks can have a significant impact on communities, especially since it can be difficult to distinguish flu symptoms from those of Covid-19, common colds or allergies.

“We’re already starting to see in some areas that the flu is circulating,” Casalotti said. “In general, flu activity is low across the country, but is starting to pick up especially in the Southeast.”

In August, as concern about the upcoming flu season grew, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices released a report updating its recommendations for this year’s seasonal flu vaccine.

Older people typically receive a higher dose of flu vaccine than younger adults, but in the latest update, ACIP recommended that adults 65 and older “preferably receive” a higher dose or adjuvanted flu vaccine.

“There are three of the flu vaccines that have been shown to work better in people age 65 and older,” said Schaffner, who is the ACIP liaison. “There’s a high-dose vaccine, there’s another that has an adjuvant in it — an immune stimulant — and the third is a recombinant vaccine.” Recombinant flu vaccines don’t include the flu virus or chicken eggs in the manufacturing process.

“If you look back at people aged 65 and over in previous seasons, already 80% of them have received one of these three vaccines,” he said. “What’s new this year is that ACIP has made a clear preferential recommendation. They actually said that if you are vaccinating people age 65 and older, preferably use one of these three vaccines and only if one of them is not available, use the regular vaccine.

In general, the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu shot, especially people who may be pregnant — because the vaccine offers protection not only to them but also to their baby, Schaffner said.

“There’s an added benefit,” he said. “Namely, the antibodies created in response to the vaccine, some of them cross the placenta and go to the newborn baby. So the newborn baby gets some of that protection for the first four to six months of life before we can actively vaccinate the baby.

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