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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Sept. 27, 2023

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Washington flu deaths 10 times higher this season than last

262 fatalities so far are similar to pre-pandemic numbers


OLYMPIA—The current flu season in Washington is at least 10 times deadlier than last year’s season and the deadliest in five years, according to state data.

So far, the data show there have been 262 deaths during the 2022-2023 season, which roughly runs from October 2022 to October 2023. During the 2021-2022 season, the state counted just 13 deaths as of late April and 26 deaths in total.

The state Department of Health announced the concerning trend in a Thursday news release. The announcement came over a month after the DOH ended masking requirements in health care settings and the same day that the federal COVID-19 public health emergency expired.

Flu cases remained low during the COVID-19 pandemic as people took precautions such as masking and social distancing, State Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah said in the release. Given the surge in flu deaths this season, Shah urged the public to get a flu vaccine.

“The flu vaccine is your best protection against this serious disease. Even if you get the flu, if you’ve been vaccinated, typically your illness is milder and you aren’t as likely to need to go to the hospital,” Shah said.

Children who got this year’s flu vaccine had a nearly three-quarters reduced risk of influenza A-related hospitalization, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Adults who got the vaccine saw their risk decrease by nearly half.

Though the flu vaccine is effective, the release says vaccination rates have decreased nationally for some groups. Vaccination rates for children dropped more than 6 percent this season and rates for pregnant people fell by almost 15 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the release.

The DOH also advises the public to take familiar precautions such as frequently washing hands, staying home when sick and wearing a mask in crowded spaces. These measures should help stop the spread of the flu and protect populations that are especially vulnerable to severe disease, DOH says.

Flu vaccines are commonly available at local pharmacies.

Seasonal data

Flu activity in Washington state peaked by the end of November 2022 and fell to minimal levels by late April, according to the latest DOH weekly report.

During the pandemic, the state only recorded 26 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated deaths in the 2021-2022 season, zero deaths in the 2020-2021 season and 114 deaths in the 2019-2020 season.

The lower number of deaths during the pandemic may be attributed to COVID-19-related mitigation measures. However, a summary report on the 2021-2022 season recommends the data be interpreted cautiously, especially when comparing seasons.

Prior to the pandemic, the state counted 245 deaths in the 2018-2019 season, 296 deaths in the 2017-2018 season and 278 deaths in the 2016-2017 season.

Out of the 262 total deaths this season so far, those 65 and older accounted for 199 of them, according to the latest weekly report.

Meanwhile, 41 deaths occurred among those 50-64, 15 among those 30-49, 2 among those 18-29, 3 among those 5-17 and 2 among those 4 or younger.

The number of deaths recorded so far this season also varied by region.

  • 92 deaths occurred in the Puget Sound Region, which includes King and Pierce counties.
  • 38 deaths in the Southwest Region, which includes Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties.
  • 36 deaths occurred in the West-Northwest Region, which includes Clallam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific and Thurston counties.
  • 36 deaths occurred in the Central Region, which includes Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Okanogan, Walla Walla and Yakima counties.
  • 31 deaths occurred in the North Region, which includes Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.