abc27 exclusive: Early-season flu diagnoses are down in PA

Health

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has urged Americans to get their annual flu shots by Saturday, and preliminary evidence suggests Pennsylvanians are listening:

  • Diagnoses of “influenza-like illness” (ILI) for the first three weeks of flu season are at their lowest level in four years (since the CDC began collecting data from a similar range of PA healthcare providers as it does today), according to an abc27 analysis of PA-specific CDC data. Although flu diagnoses typically don’t peak until winter, the CDC defines a new flu season as beginning the first week of October.
  • Camp Hill, Pa.-based Rite Aid confirmed to abc27 that uptake of flu shots is roughly commensurate with the 40 percent increase in doses it ordered this year compared to last year.

First, the data. ILI diagnoses in Pennsylvania for the first three weeks of October for each of the past four years:

Year“ILI” diagnoses, first three weeks of October
20171,732
20181,785
20191,602
20201,535
Source: abc27 analysis of CDC data

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, speaking with abc27 News, cautioned against reading too much into the early-season numbers. She said even historically, low early-season numbers don’t necessarily predict a benign flu season. (abc27 independently confirmed, in its analysis, that particularly deadly flu seasons during the past decade have sometimes followed relatively healthy Octobers.)

Still, she agreed fewer cases are better than more cases. And she agreed with the idea that concerns about COVID-19 could be helping.

“All of the measures that we’ve been discussing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would protect people from exposure to the flu as well,” she said, adding a major difference: “Of course for the flu, we have a very safe and effective flu shot.”

She said the additional measures that protect against both COVID-19 and the flu are masking, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and enhanced sanitation, such as frequent hand-washing.

A roughly 40-percent increase in flu shot recipients at a pharmacy chain such as Rite Aid doesn’t necessarily net out to fully a 40-percent increase for the population, because as Chris Altman, Rite Aid pharmacist and clinical manager for its immunization program, noted, some people have delayed visits to doctors offices or replaced them with telehealth visits. Additionally, children as young as 3 years old can now receive flu shots from Pa. pharmacists. Previously only children nine and older could get flu shots in pharmacies; younger children had to go to pediatricians or other healthcare clinics.

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