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Officials Warn of ‘Worst-Case’ Flu Scenario this Winter

Low vaccination rates and a dominant flu strain could challenge Pennsylvania hospitals

October 05, 2021

The state’s public health leaders are urging Pennsylvanians to get the flu vaccine to avoid a “worst-case situation” with thousands of unnecessary hospitalizations this winter.

On Tuesday, officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and UPMC West Shore urged residents to get vaccinated against the flu before November. Officials say the annual reminder for vaccination comes at a critical time to help avoid a so-called “twindemic” of COVID-19 and the flu this winter.

“As our communities start to relax COVID-19 containment measures, such as masking and social distancing, we are seeing resurgence of other respiratory viruses, which does not bode well for the flu season ahead,” said Dr. John Goldman, UPMC infectious disease specialist in central Pennsylvania.

In a worst-case scenario—with a highly transmissible flu strain and low flu vaccination rates—there could be nearly 500,000 more flu hospitalizations compared to a normal year, according to predictive models from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

“Vaccinating as many people against the flu as possible will be key to avoiding this scenario,” Dr. Goldman said.

Here are five things to consider at the start of flu season:

  1. Unusually mild season:  Last year, there were just 4,000 flu cases reported in Pennsylvania. In a typical year, the state sees more than 131,000 cases.
  2. Contributing factors:  The vaccination rate, the transmissibility of the circulating strain, and adherence to public health precautions will help determine the severity of this flu season.
  3. Vaccine protection:  The vaccine will not completely protect you against getting the flu, but it significantly decreases your chances of having severe illness or requiring hospital care.
  4. COVID-19 vs. the flu:  The symptoms of the two viruses can be similar and difficult to decipher without testing.
  5. High-risk individuals:  The flu vaccine is particularly important for older adults and those with underlying health conditions, cutting their risk of death from the flu nearly in half.

“Although we know that we had a really mild flu season last year, this year is really full of a lot of unknowns,” said Dr. Denise Johnson, acting physician general. “It’s really hard to know from season to season what we’re going to be seeing in terms of flu.”

Dr. Johnson and Ray Barishansky, deputy secretary for health preparedness and community protection, also received their flu shots during the event.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone six months and older receive the flu shot, with only a few rare exceptions.

HAP and Pennsylvania’s hospitals encourage everyone who is eligible to get the flu shot and to follow the proper public health precautions to limit the spread of the virus, such as handwashing and staying home when sick.

For more information about the upcoming flu season, contact Mary T. Catanzaro, RN, BSMT (ASCP), CIC, FAPIC, infection preventionist, or Clare Edelmayer, RN, MT (ASCP), MS, CIC, FAPIC, infection preventionist.
 




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