Peak flu season? 'Tripledemic' is far from over but flu cases down

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Is flu season peaking? Cases are dropping but the ‘tripledemic’ threat still looms large

This year’s flu season got off to an alarming start, with hospitalization rates more than 10 times those of past years’ seasons. But as Americans travel for the holidays this week, new data show an encouraging downturn in flu activity in some parts of the country.

Some believe that this means this year’s flu season may be unique only in its timing, not its severity.

“It looks like right now that flu is coming down, and by the time it’s all done, it will be just another average flu year, it just came early,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “It did stress hospitals, but that’s because there’s a whole lot of problems on availability of hospital care right now.”

Normally, the peak arrives in February, making this year’s season two months ahead of schedule. Still, in some places, flu cases remain high, and a second peak of flu cases, from another variant, wouldn’t be unprecedented, especially as Americans gather over the next couple weeks for the holidays.

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“Predicting the behavior of winter respiratory viruses is a hazardous occupation because the viruses often make you look foolish,” said William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt Medical Center. “If you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season.”

For example, last year’s flu cases rose along the usual timeline, but then cases “plummeted like a stone” and then “smoldered” on through June, Schaffner said.

This year’s flu vaccine was well-matched to the virus strains in circulation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but just under 40 percent of adults have been vaccinated. That’s better coverage than at this point during last year’s season, but still low, according to Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Schaffner attributes this to covid-induced “vaccine fatigue.”

An October Harris-Grid poll found that more than 60 percent of respondents had already received or were planning to receive their flu shot. But vaccine uptake seems to vary along party lines — in 2021, just 45 percent of Republican respondents got their shot, compared to nearly 70 percent of Democrats.

In the first two years of the covid-19 pandemic, flu activity was relatively quiet, something experts attribute to cautionary behavior like masking and avoiding indoor social gatherings due to the pandemic, so this is also the first year the nation has faced a surge of both viruses simultaneously. Even if this flu season is over earlier than expected, healthcare facilities are still facing worker shortages and higher patient volumes from the “tripledemic,” a combination of flu, covid-19 and RSV circulating in the U.S. population.

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“The fact that all of those viruses are circulating now and early and that the demand wasn’t forecasted well by pharmaceutical manufacturers has led to spot shortages of drugs like Tylenol and other cough and cold remedies,” said Adalja.

And despite the early indications of a decline in flu activity, it’s too early to say whether this season is really over. Experts are encouraging people to overcome their vaccine fatigue and get both their flu shots and updated covid-19 boosters.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Lambert. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

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