January 14, 2020

Between 9.7 million and 14 million people have been stricken with the flu as of Jan. 4, according to the latest CDC data, and officials say if this season stays on the track it's on, it's set to be one of the worst in decades.

Q&A: How to achieve universal employee flu vaccination

Flu activity so far

According to Friday's Weekly Influenza Surveillance report from CDC, 46 states were experiencing widespread flu activity in the week ending in Jan. 4, while three states were experiencing regional flu activity. Just Washington, D.C. and Hawaii were experiencing local flu activity.

This flu season is on track to be as severe as the 2017-2018 flu season, which was the deadliest flu season in more than 40 years, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "The initial indicators indicate this is not going to be a good season—this is going to be a bad season," he said.

As of Jan. 4, this season was already worse than last year's in some regards, according to CDC. For example, the latest data showed the cumulative hospitalization rate for the flu was 14.6 per 100,000 people this season, compared with 11.6 per 100,000 at the same point last season.

According to CDC, this year's flu season has led to at least 4.5 million medical visits and 87,000 hospitalizations. The data also shows that between 4,800 and 12,000 flu-related deaths occurred from Oct. 1, 2019, to Jan. 4, 2019. In addition, CDC found that the percentage of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness decreased from 7% in the week ending Dec. 27 to 5.8% in the week ending Jan. 4, above the national baseline of 2.4%.

This flu season has been especially bad for children, according to CDC. As of the latest CDC report, 32 pediatric deaths had been reported this flu season, including five reported during the week ending in Jan. 4.

According to the Washington Post, the influenza B strain, which is more likely to cause complications in children and younger adults, is dominating in most areas of the country—and there's a subgroup of the B strain going around that is not included in this year's flu vaccine. However, CDC officials said the two types of influenza B are similar, so the vaccine should still be useful. "They are close enough so the vaccine offers some protection," according to Lynnette Brammer, head of CDC's domestic influenza surveillance team.

Fauci said it's possible that flu activity could drop soon, which would mean this year's flu season wouldn't be as severe. "Hopefully this turns around and comes down, but if it continues on the trajectory it's on, it's not going to be good," he said.

However, the flu is hard to predict, he added. "The only thing predictable about flu is that it's unpredictable" (CDC Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, 1/10; CDC "Flu View," accessed 1/13; CDC Preliminary In-Season 2019-2020 Flu Burden Estimates, accessed 1/13; Cohen/Bonifield, CNN, 1/3; Sun, Washington Post, 1/10; Grady, New York Times, 1/11)

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