CDC estimates show the 2022-2023 flu season is off to a fast start, with at least 880,000 flu cases and flu hospitalizations at the highest mark they've been since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, leading experts to express concerns about lagging flu vaccination rates.
Flu spreads quickly throughout US
Alongside the 880,00 flu cases, CDC estimates there have been at least 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 deaths from the flu, including one child who died this past week, marking the first pediatric death from the flu for the 2022-2023 season.
While hospitalization rates are rising among all age groups, they were highest among those ages 65 and older and children ages 4 and younger.
CDC's data shows the highest rates of flu activity are currently in the Southeast and South-Central areas of the United States—from Texas to Georgia and gradually moving up the East Coast.
Experts concerned about lagging vaccination rates
Currently, CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older receive a flu vaccine every year. According to William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, while there's no dominant flu strain yet, the current vaccines match up well with the strain most often being reported.
However, just 21% of adults and 22% of children have received a vaccine so far this year, CDC data shows, which is similar to the amount of people receiving a vaccine this time last year.
"That makes me doubly worried," Schaffner said. The high flu burden "certainly looks like the start of what could be the worst flu season in 13 years."
Schaffner added that the flu data right now is "ominous."
"Not only is flu early, it also looks very severe," he said. "This is not just a preview of coming attractions. We're already starting to see this movie. I would call it a scary movie."
Hospital officials have been preparing for a stronger flu season this winter because so many people have dropped Covid-19 protection measures and are reluctant to get vaccinated. However, Cesar Arias, chief of infectious diseases for Houston Methodist, said he's been surprised at how early flu cases have risen.
"This was something that we were expecting because we are a hub, and a lot of people are traveling here," he said. But, he added, "I didn't expect to see that much [flu] that early."
However, Lynette Brammer, an epidemiologist and head of CDC's domestic influenza surveillance team, noted that "[a]n early start doesn't always mean severe."
In Australia, there was a "really sharp, very fast uptake then a very quick drop," Brammer said. And in Argentina, peak flu activity occurred during what would have been the country's summer season.