Flu Season Off to Early Start: More Than 3 Million Cases in the U.S.

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Flu activity is on the rise this winter. Getty Images
  • There have been as many as 3.7 million cases of the flu and up to 3,300 flu-related deaths in the United States, according to the CDC.
  • Flu activity has been elevated for 5 weeks.
  • The last time flu activity picked up this quickly was more than 15 years ago.

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that’s been updated since it was first published. Healthline will continue to update this article when there’s new information.

During the first month of this year’s flu season, widespread flu activity mostly unfolded in the Southern states linked between Texas and Georgia. But, now the virus is steadily spreading to Northern and Western states, per the latest flu report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and all regions are seeing elevated levels of flu activity.

Flu activity has been elevated for 5 weeks now after getting an earlier start compared to what we’ve seen in recent years.

The last time flu activity picked up this fast and this early was during the 2003–2004 flu season, Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson, confirmed.

Between October 1, 2019, and December 7, 2019, there have been up to 3.7 million cases of the flu, between 23,000 to 41,000 hospitalizations, and approximately 1,300 to 3,300 flu-related deaths, according to the CDC.

There have been 10 pediatric deaths so far this season, most of which were traced back to influenza B. B strains, which usually don’t pop up until later on in the flu season, are striking unusually early this year. They’re known to cause a severe illness in young children.

Health experts predict that flu activity may peak earlier than usual. While we usually see flu activity summit in February, the worst of it may strike as early as December.

“While flu is difficult to predict, CDC flu forecasts suggest flu activity will continue to increase and remain elevated with a 40 percent chance [now 45 percent] that activity will peak in December, which would be relatively early compared to many of seasons,” Nordlund told Healthline, adding that it’s still not too late to get vaccinated.

There’s also a 30 percent chance it could peak in January and a 20 percent chance we’ll see the worst of it in February. Either way, expect to see flu activity surge soon.

Eleven states plus Puerto Rico are now seeing severe activity. A handful of Southern states, strung between Texas and Georgia, continue to see the strongest wave of flu cases.

For example, the Children’s Hospital New Orleans in Louisiana recently reported over 1,400 cases of influenza, whereas they’d only seen nine cases at this point in time last year. And by November 30, Ochsner Health System in Louisiana had seen 1,385 percent more flu cases than they did in November 2018.

In addition to New York City, eleven other states — Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Oregon — are seeing steady flu activity as well. But states in every region are reporting aggressive outbreaks, school shutdowns, and life-threatening complications.

According to the CDC, there are three main strains circulating: influenza A H1N1, influenza A H3N2, and influenza B/Victoria.

“Usually, we have one predominant influenza virus early in the season, with successive waves of other flu viruses as the season progresses. But this year so far we have significant co-circulation, nationally and in Connecticut, of three viruses — influenza A subtypes H3N2 and H1N1pdm09, as well as influenza B/Victoria,” says Dr. Marie-Louise Landry, a Yale Medicine infectious disease expert and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory.

Even though the B/Victoria strain is predominant now — which the CDC says is unusual for this time of year — that doesn’t mean it will continue to stay that way throughout the season.

The flu patterns that play out each year are unpredictable.

“A season can start off slow and then result in increased cases later, can be severe early and then end relatively early, or can be mild throughout,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, said, adding there’s no reliable way to know what’s coming next.

According to Nordlund, it’s still too soon to know just how effective this year’s flu vaccine is.

“There is relatively little laboratory data on the characterization of viruses collected since October, so it’s not possible to make conclusions about how well the vaccine will work at this time,” Nordlund said.

On top of that, influenza strains may mutate each year, affecting how well the vaccine works, Maldonado said. Regardless, the flu vaccination is still your best shot at avoiding the flu and severe complications, including pneumonia, sinus infections, and heart inflammation.

“Though imperfect, vaccination remains our best chance to protect ourselves and our families against flu and its complications,” Landry said.

Flu activity continues to steadily increase across the country, with widespread activity currently striking the Southern states between Texas and Georgia.

The CDC says flu season is off to an earlier start this year, and we may see flu activity peak as early as December. It’s still not too late to get vaccinated, which remains your best bet at protecting yourself from the flu.

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