The current flu season is on track to be one of the most severe in years, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Anthony Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, says the 2019-2020 flu season is looking as worrying as the 2018-2017 season, which was the most severe, longest-lasting, and deadliest in at least a decade.
The new CDC data show that so far this season, the flu has infected at least 6.4 million people, caused 55,000 hospitalizations, and claimed the lives of 2,900. Twenty-seven of those who died were children.
Certain strains are striking more in some areas than others
Although all four flu strains (A, B, C, and D) are currently infecting people, certain strains are affecting some parts of the country more than others. On Friday, the CDC said that 34 states, as well as Washington D.C, New York City, and Puerto Rico are all seeing "high flu activity."
The Department of Health Services reports that hospitalizations due to flu have spiked in Wisconsin (459 cases) and that so far this season, 11 people have died. The number of hospitalizations is three times as high as it was this time last year, and the CDC has flagged Wisconsin as in the "high flu" category.
Physicians say the situation could get worse before it improves, and officials are encouraging anyone who has not yet received their annual flu shot to make sure they get one.
Seventh consecutive week of "widespread" flu in South Carolina
According to the South Carolina State Department of Health and Environmental Control (SDHEC), the final week of 2019 saw 301 new cases of flu, bringing the state's number of reported cases this season to 1,025. That last week of the year also saw four deaths, bringing the state's total death toll to 15.
The SDHEC says it was the seventh consecutive week that flu activity had been "widespread" in South Carolina.
Doctor Lucretia Carter from Tidelands Health, Georgetown, said she could never tell how severe a flu season is going to be until it begins.
It seems to be a pretty persistent virus this year. We're definitely seeing a sharp increase in the number of influenzas for this season."
Lucretia Carter, Tidelands Health
Carter says the number of cases has spiked in recent weeks, although that is normal for the month of January. However, flu strains are always developing and becoming more persistent, she adds, which allows them to stick around beyond what would normally be considered the flu season.
"I will say over the last several years, we're seeing cases through the summer," says Carter. Since the flu mutates, "there is no reason why a strain could not mutate and become more virulent or just as virulent year-round as it in the winter season."
Carter, therefore, recommends getting a flu shot, irrespective of whether it is flu season or not.
A less common flu strain is affecting Virginia
In Virginia, 255 cases of pneumonia-and-influenza-associated deaths have been reported so far this year, according to the state's health department.
Public Health officials say that the type of flu being reported frequently in Virginia this year is a strain that is usually less common. The Virginia Department of Health says that the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that of more than 1,800 lab-confirmed cases confirmed since the beginning of the current season, 75% had been identified as type B.
A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Scott Pauley, says this is the first time that influenza B has been reported more frequently than influenza A nationally since the 1992-1993 season. This could mean a less threatening season in terms of death, he says, but it could still be a strong one.
The latest from the CDC
The latest flu forecast from the CDC predicted that, across the US, flu activity looks like it will remain high through mid-January.
"The initial indicators indicate this is not going to be a good season — this is going to be a bad season," said Fauci.
Carter says that the majority of flu cases she has seen lately have been among people who had not received a flu shot. As well as ensuring people receive a shot at the beginning of the flu season, she says they should also consider getting more frequent shots.
"Our best hope is that we get at least six months of coverage," says Carter, but after that people should think about getting another one.
It's never too late. If you have not received the flu vaccine, it's always a good time to get the flu vaccine. Even if you've had a flu illness already this season, the flu vaccine covers more than one strain, so it will hopefully protect you from getting the flu again for a second time this season."
Lucretia Carter, Tidelands Health