Florida infectious disease expert discusses flu season: ‘I think it’s going to be more significant than COVID this year’
While COVID-19 remains present in communities across the nation, Dr. Vincent Hsu, AdventHealth’s Infection Control Officer, expects the 2022-2023 flu season to be significant.
“It’s a little hard to tell how long or how severe it’s going to be,” Hsu said. “In normal pre-pandemic, it could be suggested that if you have an earlier start to the season, as we have, maybe it’s over a little bit earlier. But post-COVID, all bets are off.”
The CDC estimates that so far this flu season, there have been at least 13 million reported illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations, and 7,300 deaths from the flu. Additionally, there have been a total of 21 pediatric flu-related deaths this year, with seven occurring in one week. While flu season may vary each year in terms of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths, February is the peak month.
The CDC’s Influenza Hospitalization Surveillance Network, or FluSurv-NET, shows the cumulative hospitalization rate is higher than the rates observed in week 48 during every previous flu season since 2010-2011. Week 48, which ended on December 3rd, shows that Florida’s rate of influenza-like illness was high.
“Getting flu can cause increases in kidney damage, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes because it causes significant inflammation of many vital organs, and that’s not well-known,” Hsu said.
Human behavior and lack of flu immunity are the driving forces behind what’s likely to be an intense flu season, according to Hsu, who recommends that those who are not vaccinated against the flu should do so.
“I think it’s going to be more significant than COVID this year,” Hsu said, referring to the number of reported cases and deaths.
The CDC’s COVID data tracker weekly review graph shows low levels of COVID-19 in much of the country, including Florida. While most influenza cases present as mild or moderate and won’t require hospitalization, those who are at greater risk for contracting COVID are also at greater risk for the flu.
High-risk individuals include the very young, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised or have chronic health conditions. Severe flu-like symptoms include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or belly, sudden dizziness, severe or repeated vomiting, and severe dehydration. Different antivirals are used to treat influenza and COVID-19, which is why Hsu said distinguishing the two is important.
“If you’re not feeling that sick and you’re going to stay home, you don’t necessarily need to get tested,” Hsu said. “When it’s important to really focus on a treatment because you are at greater risk for severe illness, that’s when you should get tested because knowing what you have can make a difference when there are antivirals available.”
In addition to tracking COVID-19 and influenza, Florida’s DOH is also monitoring an above-average number of cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in the state. While RSV is a common respiratory virus, pediatric emergency department visits may increase when compared to previous years.
As an infection of the lungs and respiratory tract, RSV symptoms mimic the common cold. According to DOH, mild RSV case symptoms include a congested or runny nose, dry cough, low grade fever, sore throat, sneezing, and headache. Severe RSV symptoms include fever, cough, wheezing, rapid or difficulty breathing, and bluish skin color.
RSV affects children most severely, and the majority of children and adults recover in one to two weeks, according to DOH. Preventative measures recommended by health officials are similar to that of influenza and COVID-19: wash hands frequently with soap and water, cover the mouth when coughing or sneezing, avoid close contact with people who are sick, wipe down frequently touched surfaces, and stay home if sick.
“You should have fun [this holiday season],” Hsu said. “But you should also exhibit behaviors that will keep yourself or others as safe as possible.”