The nation’s severe flu season is still getting worse, with hospitalization rates now the highest in nearly a decade and 16 new deaths among children reported, federal health officials said Friday.
“This is a very difficult season,” said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Weeks after officials hoped the epidemic might have peaked, it is instead going strong, with illnesses widespread in 48 states and flu activity high in 42 states and the District of Columbia, as of the last full week of January.
"There’s lots of flu occurring simultaneously across most of the U.S.,” said Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC’s influenza division. That coast-to-coast onslaught “is an unusual pattern for flu in the U.S.”
Schuchat and Jernigan told reporters that the overall season now looks worse in some ways than the last severe outbreak, in 2014-2015, but it’s too soon to say what the final toll will be. In that last severe season, an estimated 56,000 people, including 148 children, died. A total of 53 child deaths have been reported so far this year.
The overall impact of the flu is highest among people over age 65, followed this year by people ages 50 to 64, CDC hospitalization data show.
Other details from CDC:
• Since this flu season started, Americans have been hospitalized for the illness at a rate of 51.4 per 100,000 people, the highest level seen since CDC started keeping comparable statistics in 2010.
• The 16 children reported to have died in the last week of January were the most to die in a single week since the 2014-2015 season.
• A total of 7.1% of visits to health care providers in late January were for flu-like illnesses, a weekly intensity level surpassed just twice in the past 15 years, during the severe flu season of 2003-2004 and in 2009, when a new swine flu virus caused a pandemic.
Even before the flu season started, doctors said it could be on the tough side, because the dominant strain of virus was predicted — correctly — to be a type of influenza A called H3N2. The strain tends to cause worse illnesses than other strains, and vaccines tend to be less effective fighting it.
CDC officials have been guessing the current vaccine might prevent 30% of H3N2 infections, but preliminary data from Canada, released this week, suggest effectiveness is lower —around 17%. Earlier data from Australia put the number at 10%. CDC will put out its own vaccine effectiveness estimate later this month, Schuchat said.
In the meantime, the CDC continues to recommend the flu vaccine, not only to prevent the flu but potentially lessen its severity, Schuchat said. Strains of the flu with greater vaccine susceptibility are expected to become more common as the season progresses, she added.
Some spot shortages of vaccines and anti-viral medications have been reported, but nationwide supplies are adequate, Schuchat said.
And there are some signs of improvement in some places: Oregon fell off the list of states with “widespread” flu — a possible harbinger of lessening misery in the Western part of the country, Schuchat said.
“We are not out of the woods yet, but there are steps everyone can take to fight the flu,” she said, including staying home when you are sick, covering your coughs and frequently washing your hands.