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Flu cases higher this season than last year, influenza vaccination urged

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Cases of influenza are rising in tandem with COVID-19 infections, leaving state health professionals concerned about a possible “twindemic.”

Megan Meller

Meller 

So far this season, statewide flu cases are four times higher than the same date in 2020. The most recent Respiratory Virus Surveillance Report was released by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Nov. 6. In general, case rates are still lower than in pre-pandemic years, but hospitals are also dealing with COVID patients.

With masking and distancing practices in 2020, influenza rates were at a minimum, with only 100 total cases and 21 related hospitalizations that season versus 36,000 infections and 4,425 hospitalizations in the 2018-2019 season. There were no confirmed flu deaths last season, but 183 the season prior.

As people become more lax about face coverings and not congregating, infections will continue to rise this season without resumed precautions.

“We’re dealing potentially with two very severe viruses,” Tom Haupt, influenza surveillance coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said last week. “If they both become very high incidence, it could be a devastating year for us.”

On a local level, Megan Meller, infectious disease preventionist at Gundersen Health System, says the hospital has seen only a “handful” of flu cases thus far, but infections don’t generally start to increase until December. Meller is “concerned about what the season has in store for us,” as the mild previous season may lead to fewer people getting their flu shots this year.

Thus far, flu vaccination rates in Wisconsin are lower than the previous years to date, at 26% compared to 34% in 2020 and 28% in 2019. For the 2020-21 season, flu shots totaled 44%.

“What we are hoping is people don’t forgo their influenza shots and they get vaccinated right now, because it’s that perfect window before the spike does hit,” Meller says. However, she notes, “it’s never too late” in the season to be vaccinated.”

“As many people as we can get vaccinated now through December, even January, that’s going to help a lot,” Meller says.

Meller urges individuals to be tested for the flu and COVID, and for those who are not feeling well to stay home, even if it means forgoing a holiday gathering.

“As much as we want to see our family and our grandparents, the thing we do not want to give them is COVID or influenza,” Meller says.

Flu shots are currently available at Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System and other area vaccine providers. All individuals six months and older are encouraged to get one annually.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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