Health officials say that this is a particularly bad year for an extended influenza season since flu symptoms and some of the symptoms of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, are the same (fever, cough, shortness of breath), according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Last week, the CDC said it will begin testing individuals with influenza-like-illness (ILI) for COVID-19 at public health labs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and New York City. The CDC hopes to extend the initiative nationally.
“This is an extra layer of our response that will help us detect if and when this virus is spreading in the community,” Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters last Friday. “All of our efforts are now to prevent the sustained spread of the virus in our community, but we need to be prepared for the possibility that it will spread.”
That said, CDC officials underscore that Americans have more cause to be worried about the flu than COVID-19. Flu activity has increased for the fourth consecutive week. So far this season there have been at least 26 million flu illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations, and 14,000 deaths from flu, according to the CDC.
What’s different than in recent years is that there are more cases of influenza B than A this year. Anybody can get either strain of the virus, but children are more prone to getting influenza B.
Influenza B is the most commonly reported virus among children and young adults ages 4 and under (56%) and 5-24 years (70%). Influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses are the most commonly reported flu virus among those ages 25-64 (55%) and 65 years of age and older (62%).
“For this season, 51% of influenza positive specimens reported by public health laboratories were among persons less than 25 years of age and less than 13% were from persons age 65 and older,” according to the CDC.
There were 14 pediatric deaths during the 2019-2020 flu season between weeks 52 and 56 (the weeks ending December 28, 2019 and February 8, 2020), according to CDC data. There have been 92 flu related deaths for the same period this year.
In addition, there have been elevated and levels of outpatient ILI, although hospitalization rates remain similar what is usual this time of the season, except that the rates for children and young adults are higher now than in recent seasons.
As far as treatment is concerned, the CDC notes that “medications are an important adjunct to flu vaccine in the control of influenza. Nearly all (>99%) of the influenza viruses tested this season are susceptible to the 4 FDA-approved influenza antiviral medications recommended for use in the U.S. this season.”
New York City, Puerto Rico, and 44 states report high levels of ILI activity. Two states reported moderate ILI activity: Nevada and Oregon. Washington, DC, and Alaska and Florida have a low level, and Idaho is minimal.