You know all those questions about whether you should wait until a few weeks before flu season starts to get vaccinated against the flu? Well, forget the wait. The flu season has already arrived in the U.S., this year starting over a month earlier than usual. And there are signs that the coming months could be a big flu you to America. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report called Fluview, this season has had at least 880,000 flu illnesses, 6,900 flu-related hospitalizations, and 360 flu-related deaths including one child to date in the U.S. Such numbers far exceed the numbers seen at the same time of the year in 2021 and 2020. In fact, the cumulative hospitalization rate for this past week—the 42nd week of 2022—-has been higher than the rate for the 42nd week of any year since 2010.
Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, tweeted about this bad start to flu season—bad if you are human but good if you are the influenza virus:
Rasmussen quote-tweeted a tweet from Helen Branswell, Senior Writer for STAT News, that included a chart of the flu-related deaths among children since the Fall of 2019. Notice the green mound for the Winter of 2019-2020 and then relative lack of green for the Winter of 2020-2021 and then a bit of green for the Winter of 2021-2022. Expect things to potentially really go green on this graph in a bad way for the Winter 2021-2022.
If you haven’t notice the flu around you yet, it’s not as if the influenza virus is going to say, “attention, everyone, I have entered the building.” People may be infected with the virus, not display any symptoms, yet still can infect others. The CDC is only counting reported cases from its selected sentinel surveillance sites and anything that local authorities may tell them. Many people who get sick with influenza don’t end up reporting their case to the authorities. Instead, they suffer in silence while staying at home binge watching “Love Is Blind” on Netflix or something like that.
Plus, not every part of the country is having the same level of flu activity yet. It’s been highest in the southeast and south-central parts of the U.S. so far. But the influenza virus isn’t like that weekend in Las Vegas that involved a chandelier, a crow bar, and whipped cream. What happened in one location won’t stay in that location. Expect flu activity to steady increase throughout the U.S. in the coming weeks.
Does this early start necessarily mean that the rest of the flu season will be particularly bad? No, like the TV show True Blood demonstrated, a strong start doesn’t guarantee sustained high activity. But a number of factors presage a “I Knew Flu Were Trouble” season. There’s the did-everyone-forget-that-Covid-19-is-airborne problem. Many people seem to be tossing away face masks like they were shutter shades or micro sun glasses. Also, many places don’t seem to be bothering about keeping their rooms well-ventilated and air filtered and purified. These interventions plus social distancing likely helped keep the 2020-2021 flu season practically non-existent and the 2022-2022 one quite mild.
As of week 42, this has been a very A influenza season, with 97.7% of the tested samples having Influenza A strains in them. The most common specific strain has been influenza A H3N2, being in 74.6% of the samples, followed by (H1N1)pdm09 in 25.4% of them. This has so far been a not too B flu season with influenza B appearing in only 2.3% of tested samples. Keep in mind that this distribution could very well change as the flu season trudges along.
Getting the flu is certainly not the same as catching a cold. Compared to the common cold, which is typically self-limited perhaps leaving your head feeling like a Hot Pocket that’s been in the microwave too long, it’s common to have a “Flu Shook Me All Night Long” situation. The flu can really knock you out of commission for several days. Plus, there’s always the risk of even more severe complications. Family physician Gretchen LaSalle, MD, tweeted a reminder that “I’m healthy” is not a reason to not get the flu shot:
As you can see, LaSalle included a tweet from Families Fighting Flu, a nonprofit advocacy organization that describes itself as being “dedicated to protecting children, families, and communities against the flu” and including “families whose loved ones have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza.” Their tweet mentions the tragic story of Brandon Gonzales who went from being a healthy nine-year-old riding go-carts and eating pizza to losing his life from the flu.
Getting vaccinated can not only keep you from getting infected in the first place but can also reduce the severity of your symptoms if you do end up getting infected. Sure, the flu vaccine can’t offer 100% protection. Sure, getting vaccinated doesn’t mean that it’s OK to dive into mosh pits with impunity or lick doorknobs. But as is the case with clothes, some protection is much better than no protection. In most flu seasons, vaccine effectiveness tends to be at least 40%.
That’s why the CDC recommends that you get the influenza vaccine each year, assuming that you are at least six months old. If you are less than six months of age and reading this, you should hold off on the vaccine until your immune system is more developed. But congratulations on your ability to read.
If you haven’t gotten the flu vaccine yet, no need to wait any longer. It takes about two weeks for the protection from the flu vaccine to fully kick in, so getting vaccinated now should get you protected by National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day on November 15 and the Thanksgiving Holiday the following week
Oh, and if you are wondering, you can get the flu vaccine and the Covid-19 vaccine at the same time as Norlaine Thomas, PhD, whose Twitter profile dscribes her as a “filmmaker, hockey player, Mom, domestic goddess, political geek, writer,” tweeted:
Her stated reasons for her and her husband getting the Covid-19 booster and flu shots: “We did this because we are responsible adults & we trust science. We don’t want to get sick & don’t want to risk making anyone else sick.” Imagine that. Caring about yourself and others. This could be a rough Winter respiratory virus-wise and the viral party may be only getting started.