Although it is still early on in the flu season, cases are surging across the United States, and CDC data shows that the current estimated disease burden from the flu increased 1.5-fold in a single week.
The current state of the flu in the US
According to CDC data, flu activity continues to be high across the United States. For the week ending Nov. 12, 15 states and the District of Columbia had very high rates of influenza-like illnesses (ILI). Meanwhile, 14 states reported high levels of ILI activity, up from nine states the previous week, and six states reported moderate activity.
States that are experiencing low ILI activity may also see cases increase over the coming weeks. For example, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that school outbreaks of the flu have doubled in the last week, going from 97 outbreaks the first week of November to 195 in the second week.
"The rise and onset of viruses this early in November—and we haven't even reached Thanksgiving - certainly has our attention," said Madeline Gagnon, a pediatric physician with Gillette Children's Hospital.
Overall, there were 8,707 patients hospitalized with influenza for the week ending Nov. 12—up from 6,465 patients the week before. The percentage of outpatient provider visits also increased from 5.5% to 5.8% that week and remained well above the national baseline of 2.5%.
So far, CDC estimates that there have been at least 4.4 million flu cases, 2.1 million flu medical visits, 38,000 flu hospitalizations, and 2,100 flu deaths this season—a 1.5-fold increase from the figures reported the week before.
Among children, there have been seven total pediatric flu deaths for the 2022-2023 flu season, with two new deaths being reported for the week ending in Nov. 12.
How to protect yourself from the flu this winter
According to health experts, the most important thing people can do to protect themselves this flu season is get vaccinated. Although being vaccinated does not eliminate the risk of infection, it does significantly reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization.
CDC recommends everyone ages six months and older get vaccinated against the flu annually. As of mid-October, over 26% of adults had already received a flu vaccine—slightly higher than the 23% who did the same last flu season and similar to the 29% who did so in October 2019 before the pandemic.
In addition, Samuel Scarpino, director of life sciences at the Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University, said this year's flu vaccine, "is a good match [for the viral strain currently circulating], which isn't the case every year." So, if people are deciding whether or when to get a flu shot, "[n]ow is a great time to do that," he said.
Other habits that can help protect people from the flu include avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying home when symptomatic, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and washing your hands regularly. Some people may also consider wearing a mask again, especially in areas where people are in close contact.
"If you're in a venue where people are in close proximity to each other, it’s never a bad idea to mask," said Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "Masking will prevent transmission not only of COVID, but of the flu."
Overall, vaccination remains the "gold standard" to avoid severe illness from the flu regardless of how big or small a flu season ends up being. "Predictions about flu are a hazardous business because you’re so frequently wrong," said William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "This is not something we should try to predict to determine whether or not [to get] vaccinated. Just get vaccinated every year." (Lenharo, Scientific American, 11/18; Godfrey, FOX 9, 11/17; Kekatos et al., ABC News, 11/18)