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Early onset of flu season, more infections anticipated

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Wisconsin’s influenza vaccination rate has increased in recent years, but after a drop in shots for some demographics during the 2021-22 season health officials are hoping for an uptick in doses this fall.

Flu shot

The CDC is recommending all those 6 months and older to get a flu shot in September or October unless told otherwise by a doctor.

After calm flu seasons during the pandemic, infections are expected to rise in 2022-23, with the U.S. likely to follow the trend in the Southern Hemisphere. As the winter season concludes across the globe in Australia, the country is reporting its highest number of cases in five years, with the season also starting earlier than normal.

Generally a “predictor for how it’s going to be for us,” the harsher season in the Southern Hemisphere is “concerning,” says Megan Meller, infectious disease expert at Gundersen Health System.

Megan Meller

Meller 

“They’ve had a swift and severe season and that’s putting us on watch,” Meller says. “Some of the data that’s coming out across the country shows it is an early flu season. Things could still change and surprise us, but it’s always best when you see this data come out to be prepared, and being being prepared includes ensuring the population is vaccinated.”

The CDC advises all individuals 6 months and older, unless otherwise advised by a physician, receive the flu shot in September or October, though it remains available later into the season. Flu generally infiltrates the U.S. between October to May.

Reasons for a heightened flu season include a return to “normal,” with masks no longer in frequent rotation, increased socialization, and the return to in-person school and work. Also contributing is the lack of immunity built up because of the previous mild years. In an average year, the CDC reports around 8% of the population will have symptomatic flu infections — additional people will be infected without indication — but the rate of infection during the 2020-2021 season was minimal both nationally and in Wisconsin.

That season, the U.S. confirmed just 1,675 flu cases, with Wisconsin recording 100. During the 2019-2020 season, Wisconsin had 36,175 cases. From 2021-2022, infections statewide were still far lower than prior years but up substantially from the previous season, with 7,118 cases. Hospitalizations and deaths related to flu also declined significantly. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported no flu deaths from Oct. 2020 to Oct. 2021.

State flu vaccine demand was higher than normal during the 2019-2020 season at 58% — the average over the past decade is 45.7% — but dropped slightly last season to 56%, per the CDC’s Influenza Seasons Vaccination Coverage Trend report. DHS, which uses data from the Wisconsin Immunization Registry and population estimates, puts the 2019-2020 vaccination rate at 42%. DHS reported the 2020-2021 rate for La Crosse County was 50%, dropping to 47% last season.

Among youth 6 months to 17, flu shots dropped almost 7% in 2020-21 versus 2019-2020, and inoculation among those 18-49 decreased by around 1%, per CDC data.

Because recent years have brought low infection numbers, some may see vaccination as unnecessary, but Meller encourages getting the shot once available, noting, “With the flu (prevention) really comes down to immunization rates. It helps prevent hospitalizations and it helps you recover faster.”

As with any respiratory illness, testing is recommended, as is staying home if feeling ill. Those who are symptomatic but need to be in public are encouraged to consider masking.

Flu shots can be obtained at Gundersen during primary care or wellness visits, including back-to-school exams. The flu shot clinic will open Oct. 17.

Walgreens is offering flu shot appointments. Mayo Clinic Health System anticipates supply later this month.

"They've had a swift and severe season and that's putting us on watch. Some of the data that's coming out across the country shows it is an early flu season. Things could still change and surprise us, but it's always best when you see this data come out to be prepared, and being being prepared includes ensuring the population is vaccinated."

Megan Meller, infectious disease expert at Gundersen Health System

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