Early-season Pa. flu cases are worst in nine years


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Flu cases so far this year aren’t merely higher than last year, which wouldn’t be difficult, considering that — as Dr. John D. Goldman, an infectious disease specialist with UPMC, said — “last year, we had basically no flu.”

Cases this year are also higher than at this point in any of the previous eight flu seasons, according to an abc27 News analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Health data.

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Why the near-decade-high case count?

Well first, it’s impossible to say definitively that more cases of the flu exist — only that more have been detected — noted Dr. Denise Johnson, Pennsylvania’s acting physician general. Maybe more flu cases are being detected because people are testing themselves for COVID-19 and learn they don’t have that but do have the flu, she said.

Still, Johnson and Goldman both said, an actual high-end number of cases wouldn’t be a surprise.

“The strain of the flu that is predominant so far is the H2N3 strain, which often produces more severe flu seasons than usual,” Goldman said. And “because so few people got the flu last year, we’re worried they may have less immunity than in the typical season.”

One CDC statistic illustrating how benign the 2019-20 flu season was: During the 2018-19 flu season, the U.S. had 144 pediatric flu deaths. During 2019-20, the last season before the pandemic, that figure rose to 199. But for 2020-21, when much of America was locked down, the flu killed one child in all of America.

Epidemiologists have credited COVID mitigation measures for last season’s record-low flu cases. Masks, social distancing and so forth prevent the spread of both kinds of viruses.

However, the vaccines for both aren’t interchangeable. “The flu vaccine doesn’t protect against COVID, and the COVID vaccine doesn’t protect against the flu,” Johnson said.

Children five years and older can get a COVID shot; those six months and older can get a flu shot. Public health officials are advising everyone eligible to get whichever shot or shots they’re eligible to get, especially as admissions are stretching hospitals to — and in some cases beyond — their capacities.

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