Cumulative flu hospitalization rate hits 13-year high

The CDC estimates there have already been nearly 7,000 flu hospitalizations in the U.S. this season, according to estimates in its latest FluView report. Not since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic have cumulative hospitalizations been so high this early in the season.

The agency also estimates there have been at least 880,000 flu illnesses and 360 deaths this season, which started at the beginning of October. These are estimates, based on preliminary data from the agency's flu hospitalization surveillance network. The network conducts population-based surveillance for laboratory-confirmed influenza-related hospitalizations in counties across 13 states, representing about 9 percent of the population. 

"We haven't seen this level of activity this early before," Lynnette Brammer, team lead of the CDC's domestic influenza surveillance team, told NBC News. 

"The data are ominous," William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Nashville-based Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post. "Not only is flu early, it also looks very severe. This is not just a preview of coming attractions. We're already starting to see this movie. I would call it a scary movie." 

Despite indicators the nation could be in store for a severe flu season, based on trends from the Southern Hemisphere, the flu is historically difficult to predict. 

"An early start doesn't always mean severe," Ms. Brammer told the Post. Adding to experts' concern is the U.S.' lagging influenza vaccination rate. So far this season, about 128 million doses have been distributed, compared to 139 million at this point last year and 154 million two years ago. 

For the week ending Oct. 22, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., reported "very high" flu activity. Eleven states, mostly in the south, reported high activity. Texas started seeing an early increase in flu cases in September. At Houston Methodist, there were 975 lab-confirmed flu cases as of Oct. 20, up from 561 the previous week, officials told the Post

The rise in flu activity comes as hospitals are already under intense strain from an unseasonable surge in respiratory syncytial virus, which is mostly affecting children. Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations increased slightly last week after nearly two months of decline. 

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