Flu Season Looks to Be Off to an Early and Robust Start

Flu season is beginning a month early this year, with a number of states already reporting high levels of flu activity and several high schools in California and Virginia experiencing massive suspected outbreaks.

flu season on the rise
Sneezing into a tissue is one way to help prevent the spread of flu.Javier Díez/Stocksy

Editor’s Note

This story has been updated to reflect the latest news.

Although we don’t know exactly what to expect as the flu returns this year, many public health authorities are bracing for an especially bad season.

As of October 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that influenza activity is currently low overall but rising in most of the country. The federal health agency notes that the South East and South Central United States are reporting the highest levels of flu activity, including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington, DC.

But significant spread of the virus hasn’t been isolated to those regions.

The New York State Department of Health said earlier this month that influenza is already considered widespread across the area. Since September, cases have been increasing in the state. For the week ending October 1, 596 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza were reported in 44 of the state’s 62 counties.

Flu season usually runs from October through May, and typically peaks between December and February. This year public health agencies began reporting cases in higher than usual numbers in September, and cases of laboratory-confirmed flu are increasing week over week.

“Influenza is starting about a month early this year, making it likely that this winter’s flu season will be severe,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious-disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The past two very mild flu seasons have spoiled us. This year we’ve taken off our masks; we’re traveling, visiting friends and relatives, attending religious services, and our children are back in school. All these activities provide an opportunity for the flu virus to spread easily.”

The CDC also notes that the most frequently recorded type of influenza last week was influenza A (H3N2), which is known to cause more-serious illness than other strains of the virus.

Potential Outbreaks in California and Virginia Schools Raise Concerns

Flu spreads more easily when people gather, and as the colder weather kicks in during the fall and winter, more are congregating indoors in office buildings, homes, childcare centers, and schools.

Schools can often be prime zones from transmission. San Diego County Public Health Services is currently investigating a large suspected outbreak of respiratory and flu-like symptoms among students at Patrick Henry High School.

According to the local ABC News affiliate, ABC 10 News San Diego, starting October 10, the high school had about 1,100 absences out of 2,600 students.

Another San Diego school, Del Norte High School, had an estimated 884 absences out of 2,517 students.

Health officials in the area have already noticed a rapid and early start to flu season, and a major children’s hospital in the region has seen a recent uptick in emergency room visits due to flu.

“Unfortunately, we anticipated this would be a rough influenza season, and alongside COVID-19, other respiratory viruses are making a rapid comeback. If you haven’t already, now is the time to get your flu and COVID-19 shots to gain the extra protections afforded by the vaccines,” said Cameron Kaiser, MD, the county’s deputy public health officer, in a statement to the county news center.

In another potential outbreak, around 1,000 students at Stafford High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia — about half the total enrollment — were absent last week due to flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms, CNN reports. The school is working with the local health department to identify the root cause of the illness.

Federal Health Officials Are Bracing for a ‘Significant’ Flu Season

Federal health officials, who are trying to get a better idea of what to expect, look to the southern hemisphere: The flu season there is just wrapping up, and it typically mirrors what’s to come in the north.

“Given what we’ve seen in Australia this summer — our summer, their winter — it’s reasonable to expect we’re going to see a significant flu season this year,” said the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Ashish Jha, MD, in a press briefing on October 11. “So we have some challenges ahead as we plan and as we look at the winter in front of us.”

Americans are being urged to get flu vaccines as soon as they can, earlier than perhaps they typically would. Dr. Jha is advising Americans to get vaccinated as soon as possible so they can more safely enjoy the holiday season with family and friends.

“The challenge with holiday seasons every year is it’s also a time where contagious respiratory viruses — like influenza, RSV, and, again this year, COVID — spread much more quickly,” said Jha. “So, my message today from this briefing room is very simple: Don’t wait. Get your new flu shot and get your new COVID shot today. If Americans did that, we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter.”

Check out Vaccines.gov to find out where to get a flu or COVID-19 shot near you.