After two flu seasons with extremely low cases, some health officials are predicting a particularly bad season this year, though the timing and severity of the flu is hard to predict, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest Oregon Health & Science University forecast shows high rates of flu occurring earlier than normal in some areas of the Southern Hemisphere. That causes some concern about what that may mean for flu rates in the United States, according to Dr. Katie Sharff, chief of infectious disease at Kaiser Permanente Northwest.
Due to social distancing, mask mandates and other measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the flu has been essentially absent. Many factors may contribute to a more active flu season this year — including students being back in schools and a low level of population immunity due to a lack of antibody circulation the past few years, according to Sharff.
“It doesn’t really matter whether there is a prediction of a severe flu season. Flu is a significant cause of respiratory illness,” Clark County Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick said. “There are anywhere from around 20,000 or 30,000 to 50,000 deaths in the United States from influenza each year. It’s a serious illness.”
The good news? The flu vaccine is an effective tool at reducing the spread of the flu.
“The best protection against the flu is the flu vaccine,” Sharff said. “The goal of vaccinations are to reduce severe disease.”
In the U.S., about 50 percent of the population gets vaccinated against the flu each year, according to CDC data. Yet, the flu vaccine is known to prevent millions of flu illnesses and hospitalizations each year. During the last significant flu season, 2019-2020, flu vaccinations prevented approximately 7.5 million flu illnesses, 105,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 6,300 flu-related deaths, according to the CDC.
“The fact that we only get 50 percent of the population vaccinated, we could prevent double those numbers,” Melnick said. “It’s really critical that people get vaccinated.”
Getting vaccinated against the flu also protects those around you who may be at an increased risk of severe illness.
“A vaccine, if it prevents you from getting infected and getting sick, it also prevents transmission to other people,” Melnick said.
Now is the time to get vaccinated, according to Melnick. The vaccine takes a few weeks to build immunity and will continue to be effective for several months.
While flu season may be just beginning, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to circulate. According to Melnick, only about 50 percent of the population eligible for the latest COVID-19 booster has received it. He recommends getting both the flu vaccine and COVID-19 booster as soon as possible; they can even be received at the same time.
Taking steps to prevent the spread and severity of the flu this season is especially important as hospital beds across Clark County are already near capacity. As of Sept. 29, 96.3 percent of hospital beds and 93.1 percent of ICU beds in Clark County were occupied, according to the latest data from Clark County Public Health.
The CDC recommends taking everyday actions to reduce the spread of the flu, along with getting vaccinated: If you are sick, stay home; avoid close contact with people who are sick; cover coughs and sneezes; wash your hands often with soap and water; and avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose.
Another effective tool at preventing the spread of respiratory viruses is wearing a mask in public spaces, according to Melnick.
“Make a risk calculation about what you need to do to protect yourself,” Melnick said. “When people have an opportunity to get the flu vaccine, they should get it now.”
For more information on where to get a flu vaccine or a COVID-19 booster, visit www.vaccines.gov or contact your health care provider.