A Second Wind for Flu Season: Navigating the Overlapping Peaks of Flu and COVID-19

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Dr. Jessica Nelson
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A Second Wind for Flu Season: Navigating the Overlapping Peaks of Flu and COVID-19

Flu Activity in the U.S.: A Second Surge?

The flu virus is still active across the U.S., despite a national decline in hospitalizations. Certain areas, particularly the Midwest, are experiencing high levels of flu-like illnesses. This season's flu generally peaks between December and February, however, a second surge seems to be on the horizon, with intensification in some areas.

Interestingly, COVID-19 illnesses have peaked around the same time as the flu. This concurrent peak has led to more hospitalizations caused by COVID-19 than by the flu. Since October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated at least 22 million flu illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations, and 15,000 deaths, with 74 of these fatalities being children. While these numbers seem high, the season has been relatively typical so far.

Increased Flu Activity in Certain Regions

While the national trend for the flu is declining, some regions are seeing an increase in activity. Particularly, the Midwest and South-Central regions are experiencing a rise in flu activity after a few weeks of declining trends. Influenza A remains the dominant strain affecting these regions. More concerning is the rise in outpatient visits for flu-like illness, especially among people aged 5 to 24 years.

In the midst of these fluctuating flu trends, COVID-19 continues to present its own challenges. Although markers for the virus declined last week, death rates held steady. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 decreased by 10.9% compared to the previous week, but still outnumber those for the flu.

Increasing Dominance of the JN.1 Variant

As the flu and COVID-19 compete for dominance, the CDC's wastewater tracking indicates that virus detection levels are high. The JN.1 variant, a subvariant of Omicron, now makes up 93.1% of sequenced samples. This strain's dominance, along with the detection of a new lineage in South Africa with over 100 mutations (designated as BA.2.87), adds a new layer of complexity to the ongoing pandemic.

COVID-19 and Flu: A Double Threat

As flu activity intensifies in some areas and declines in others, COVID-19 continues to put more people in the hospital than the flu. Despite this, flu activity is picking up again, with over 82,000 people diagnosed in one week. The downward trend for COVID-19 is coming as expected, but the peak for flu may be shifting a bit later this season. These overlapping health threats have made this flu season particularly challenging.

Health Experts Advise Caution

Given the influx of respiratory diseases, health experts are advising the public to exercise caution. The CDC estimates that so far this season, there have been at least 20 million illnesses, 230,000 hospitalizations, and 14,000 deaths from the flu. The overlapping peaks of flu and COVID-19 are a stark reminder of the importance of vaccination and adherence to public health measures.