Dec 16, 2022 - Health

America's historically bad flu season may be peaking

Weekly U.S. flu deaths
Data: CDC; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

The U.S. has been pummeled by respiratory illness, including a harsher flu season than we've seen in years. But new data indicates the outbreak may be peaking.

The big picture: The CDC estimates there have been at least 13 million illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations and 7,300 deaths, including 21 pediatric deaths, from the seasonal flu.

  • A succession of respiratory illnesses — the viruses that cause the common cold, RSV, strep, COVID and the flu — kicked off early and hit hard this season.

What they are saying: "This is unprecedented," said Alex Davidson. an epidemiologist for Kinsa, a company that forecasts infectious disease outbreaks with help of smart thermometers.

What we're watching: Experts believe the nationwide trend may be close to peaking. But they predict the outbreak will morph into regional waves of illness into early spring that could stress health systems and collide with COVID.

  • "The concern is, the viruses have been so weird this year, we don’t know," Sarah Ash Combs, an emergency department physician at Children's National Hospital, told Axios. "Whereas we can typically predictively say, 'OK that was the peak, we’re now on the down spike. We don’t know: 'Is there going to be a second spike? A January, a February, a March spike?"
  • It would be a fitting conclusion to a flu season that's defied expectations, with the highest number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations in more than a decade.

What they are saying: "Typically what we see is, after the holidays, after Christmas and New Year's, illness starts to increase and it peaks in late January, early February and then declines," Davidson said.

  • But with so many illnesses hitting so early in the season, flu is likely to peak closer to next week, he said. The forecast projects we'll see sustained elevated levels of multiple respiratory illnesses including COVID for some time.
  • "Between essentially Oct. 16 and early March, we're looking at a lot of illness," Davidson said.

Between the lines: This matches up to the experience in the clinical setting, at least at Children’s National, where a succession of respiratory illnesses hit earlier than usual, causing exponential jumps in cases, before finally starting to drop, Combs said.

  • "We have just a lot of virus out there and then we're seeing some children who are otherwise healthy kids who are just getting sicker than we'd expect," Combs said. "That's always worrying because we're thinking about where is this all going as the winter continues and we're not even through December yet," she said.

The bottom line: Those who haven't gotten a flu shot yet should absolutely get one since it's still expected to spread for some time, leaving those who haven't yet gotten it highly vulnerable.

  • The CDC recently reported it appears the flu shot was a good match for the strain that's circulating this year.
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