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Flu hospitalizations rising as doctors battle omicron-fueled Covid surge

Three children have died from influenza so far this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kristi Scott receives a flu vaccination at Great Falls College in Great Falls, Mont., on Nov. 16.
Kristi Scott receives a flu vaccination at Great Falls College in Great Falls, Mont., on Nov. 16.Rion Sanders / Great Falls Tribune

Covid-19 continues to be the main source of strain for many U.S. hospitals, but the flu is making a comeback.

"We're swimming in Covid right now," said Dr. Sean O’Leary, an infectious diseases physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado. At the same time, he said, there have been steady increases in flu cases, around 20 to 40 new cases over the past month.

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Influenza activity is “on the way up,” O’Leary said, but it’s “by no means overwhelming at this point.”

Nationwide, three children have died from the flu this season, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first two fatalities occurred in December and were the first pediatric deaths due to the disease in over a year.

Flu hospitalizations have also steadily increased, totaling up to 33,000 from Oct. 1 through Jan. 8, according to preliminary data from the CDC.

The number of flu-related hospital admissions reported to the federal government declined slightly over the last week, to 1,804, but the cumulative hospitalization rate so far this season is higher than the rate for the entire 2020-21 season, according to CDC data.

The highest cumulative hospitalization rates for this year are for adults ages 65 and older, at 9.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, said Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist who leads the CDC's domestic influenza surveillance team.

That's followed by children ages 4 and under, at 4.8 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, she said, and adults between ages 50 and 64, at 2.9 hospitalizations per 100,000.

"At this time, it appears that this season is falling within the range of what is more seen during January during a typical flu season," Brammer said.

The seasonal flu essentially vanished in the U.S. last year as more people worked from home and practiced social distancing due to the pandemic. But as states eased restrictions and more Americans returned to work, health experts predicted that there could be a more severe flu season this year.

By all measures, it has been. The CDC estimated that there's been between 970 and 2,900 flu-related deaths in the U.S. since Oct. 1.

To be sure, the number of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths still pale in comparison to those for Covid.

U.S. Covid hospitalizations set a new record Thursday, increasing by 78 percent in the last two weeks to an average of 148,731 hospitalizations per day, according to an NBC News analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data. The nation is reporting an average of 1,890 Covid deaths per day.

The surge in Covid hospitalizations is believed to be fueled by the supercontagious omicron variant.

While the rise in flu hospitalizations may not have a huge impact on hospitals right now, doctors worry a continued increase could affect already overwhelmed hospital staff.

"When patients come into the hospital with the flu, that certainly presents some challenges in managing volumes in the emergency departments," said Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association. "To the extent that any of these patients need to be admitted to this hospital, that adds some strain."

Health care workers are also at risk, he said.

"It also just doesn't have to be a doctor or a nurse being out that potentially has an impact on hospitals," he said. "It could be any of the other critically important workers from folks who cleaned the rooms to the respiratory therapist."

So far, the eastern and central parts of the nation are seeing the most flu cases, but that could change, as influenza is often unpredictable, Brammer has previously said.

She urged the public to get vaccinated against the flu, saying the flu vaccine is the best way "to protect yourself and your family from the potentially deadly consequences of a flu infection."

"Additionally, there are prescription medications called antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness," she said. "CDC recommends prompt treatment for people who have flu or suspected flu and who are at higher risk of serious flu complications."

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