More and more Utahns are sick enough with the flu to seek urgent care, a top University of Utah Health administrator said, urging everyone not yet vaccinated against the deadly virus to get their annual shot as soon as possible.
“Going back about a month, we had almost no cases. Then, in the last three weeks, we’ve been doubling every week,” Dr. Russell Vinik, U. Health’s chief medical operations officer, said, jumping from more than 20 to more than 40 as of last week.
This week, Vinik said the system is on track to see those numbers double yet again with 11 cases on Sunday. Almost all of the flu patients have gone to urgent care facilities, he said, noting that at this point, there have been few hospitalizations.
But that could change soon. Influenza activity is currently highest in the south-central and southeast parts of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although cases are climbing, too, in the mid-Atlantic states and south-central West Coast.
What’s happening with the flu
So far this flu season, the CDC reports that nationwide there have been at least 1.6 million illnesses, 13,000 hospitalizations and 730 deaths from flu, including two children. The cumulative hospitalizations are the highest since the 2010-2011 flu season.
In Utah, Intermountain Healthcare says as of the week of Oct. 23, none of the state had hit a high level for flu although much of the Wasatch Front had moderate flu activity. The eastern portion of the state, along with the northwest corner, had yet to see any flu while remaining parts of the state were at minimal or low level of activity.
Vinik said even though U. Health is seeing more COVID-19 cases than flu, the number of coronavirus cases have risen “moderately and the flu is going up exponentially right now” after being largely absent during the earlier years of the pandemic due to mitigation measures like mask wearing.
“What we know and what we expect is this to be a very busy flu season,” the doctor, an internal medicine hospitalist, said. “People don’t have an immunity they might have built up over the years because people have done a great job of wearing a mask and not sharing germs for the past few years.”
At the same time, Vinik said, the number of people getting their annual flu vaccinations have fallen off nationally.
It’s not clear what those numbers are in Utah. A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, Charla Haley, said department officials “typically do not have data in real time of flu vaccine uptake,” in part due to “a lack of complete or timely reporting of flu shots” into a state database.
Is ‘vaccine fatigue’ to blame?
It’s not certain what’s behind the decline in flu shots.
“What we suspect is there is just this vaccine fatigue. There’s been a lot of discussion about vaccines, and vaccines in some cases have become a political discussion when it shouldn’t be. We know vaccines save lives,” Vinik said, even if neither COVID-19 or flu vaccines are 100% effective at preventing infections.
“People who do get these diseases, if they’re vaccinated, they’re much less likely to get hospitalized and much less likely to die,” the doctor said. He stopped short of saying the politicization surrounding COVID-19 is to blame for people becoming reluctant to get what usually is a routine flu shot every fall.
“I don’t know. That’s something that policymakers are probably going to debate for a long time. But it’s certainly not a good thing for people’s health when we start taking evidence-based treatments and putting a political spin to them. ... That’s just not good for anybody.”
His advice for Utahns? Get vaccinated against the flu right away.
“We’re not going to avoid it,” Vinik said of a big comeback for the flu. “My advice is to get vaccinated for flu. The sooner you do it, the better. Flu is already here. We’ve seen RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) take hold significantly here in Utah and we know flu follows RSV so we’re not going to avoid this in Utah. Get vaccinated now.”
He also said Utahns should get the updated COVID-19 booster shot at the same time, since cases of the coronavirus are also expected to surge again this winter. The new booster shot targets the currently circulating versions of the COVID-19 omicron variant that sent cases skyrocketing at the start of the year.
What’s the best way to stay healthy this winter?
Getting both the flu and COVID-19 shots is “your best way to stay healthy this season,” Vinik said, especially with Thanksgiving and other holidays coming up. “Anytime people are gathering in large gathering indoors, that’s just a big risk factor for transmission of any respiratory virus. So flu and COVID are alike in that way.”
In addition to being vaccinated, the doctor said masks remain “incredibly effective at preventing virus transmission, particularly if a sick person is wearing a mask. It’s gone out of favor over the past few months, but this is something to consider, particularly if you are vulnerable or you’re around vulnerable people.”
When it comes to the flu, the list of vulnerable people includes the very young and those who are pregnant in addition to the medically compromised and the elderly, he said. Flu shots are available to anyone at least six months old.
“Now is the time to get back to our normal lives. I don’t think anybody is suggesting that we need to quarantine ourselves. But our normal lives included getting a flu shot every year. Why? Because it saves lives,” the doctor said, labeling the annual jab “a small sacrifice to protect yourself and those around you.”