2019 flu season is now the longest on record

Editor's note: We'll be updating this page with up-to-date information on flu's spread throughout the 2019 flu season.

Between 36 and 41.3 million people have been stricken with the flu so far this flu season, according to the latest CDC data, marking the longest flu season since CDC began tracking flu season duration more than 20 years ago.

About the report

CDC typically releases a Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report during flu season. This flu season, CDC added a greater level of granularity to the reports to include details such as the number of cases, doctor visits, and hospitalizations. Previously, that data was included only in a broader report published each year in September.

The latest report breaks down the flu's impact from Oct. 1, 2018 to April 13, 2019.

Severity of flu season down from last year

The preliminary data show between 36 million and 41.3 million people contracted the flu in the period the report covers, leading to at least 16.7 million medical visits and 502,000 hospitalizations. According to the report, between 34,400 and 57,300 flu-related deaths occurred from Oct. 1, 2018 to April 13, 2019. The agency said 91 pediatric deaths have been reported this flu season, including five that occurred in the week ending in April 13.

CDC said in the week ending in April 13, flu activity was "widespread" in 11 states with "regional" flu activity in 20 states, "local" flu activity in 17 states as well as the District of Columbia, and "sporadic" flu activity in Indiana and Texas.

While flu activity is "elevated" for the 2018-2019 season, CDC in its report said certain severity indicators, such as outpatient visits, are down compared with last season, suggesting the United States is on track to have a milder flu season this year. Last year's flu season led to 50 million cases, almost one million hospitalizations, and 80,000 deaths.

For example, the data show the hospitalization rate for the flu is 62.3 per 100,000 this season, compared with 100.8 per 100,000 at this point in the 2017-18 season. In addition, while the percentage of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness decreased to 2.4% in the week ending in April 13, the figure still above the national baseline of 2.2%.

Longest flu season on record

However, despite indications that this flu season is not as severe as the 2017-2018 season, it is now the longest flu season recorded since CDC began tracking flu season duration more than 20 years ago. The 2018-2019 flu season has now lasted for 21 weeks. The previous record for the longest flu season was in 2014-2015 at 20 weeks.

This is due, in part, to a stronger strain of the flu that became more prevalent in mid-February, which this year's flu vaccine didn't match strongly, according to Lynnette Brammer, who oversees flu tracking for CDC.

That said, data suggest that flu season will end soon, Brammer said. "It's on the verge" of being over, she said. "If nothing changes" (CDC, "FluView," accessed 4/23; CDC report [1], accessed 4/23; CDC report [2], accessed 4/23; Stobbe, TIME, 4/19).

Advisory Board's take

Alicia Daugherty, Managing Director, Service Line Strategy Advisor

Busy flu season? Remember that taking good care of these patients helps both patients and your organization: Flu patients who have a good experience are more likely to choose your organization for other care.

On-demand care represents one of the best opportunities for engaging new patients. Many consumers wait until they're sick before selecting a provider, but will return to that provider—or their referred partners—for future care. But how can you ensure that patients will have a positive experience and return? We surveyed nearly 4,000 consumers and asked them to imagine that they had the flu and wanted to receive care, but their usual provider was unavailable. Here were the attributes they wanted from their provider:

  • Convenient appointments: Six of the top 10 most desired attributes for patients were related to convenience, with the ability to walk in without an appointment and be seen within 30 minutes topping the list. Clearly, accommodating these short wait times can be costly and hard to coordinate. But the data shows that offering same-day appointments is almost as appealing. Respondents ranked this just below a walk-in, and would rather have a scheduled same-day appointment than walk in and wait for an hour.

    Respondents also ranked convenience above credentials—they ranked six attributes related to access and convenience over seeing a physicians, and four attributes over seeing the same provider every visit. This shows that staffing advanced practitioners to offer on-demand care can be a wise trade off.

  • Expanded hours: Many consumers wanted 24/7 hour access, an option that is rarely feasible. But offering two other options for expanded access—after-hours or weekend hours—also scored highly. For providers trying to decide between the two, look at your target population's age. Our survey found that younger patients preferred after-hours access, while older patients preferred weekend hours.

  • Up-front cost information: Not knowing the cost of the visit, and only finding out after receiving the bill weeks later, was one of the least favorable attributes (55 out of 56 total). 74% reported that they'd rather pay $50 out of pocket than be left in the dark. Instead, providers who offer this cost information up-front can attract consumers, improve patient experience, and increase loyalty.

Many patients will end up getting the flu this season. Attracting them through expanded access, convenient appointments, and up-front price transparency can ensure that they choose your facility—and return for future care.

To learn other insights from our consumer preference survey, download the report here. Then, make sure to read some of my colleagues' other reports on:

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