Public health experts said this year’s flu season could result in three times as many hospitalizations, putting a further strain on the healthcare system during the pandemic, NBC News reported.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that since 2010, there are somewhere between 9.3 to 45 million flu illnesses each year and more than 200,000 hospitalizations.
Public health officials were expecting a “twindemic” last winter but only 155 Americans were hospitalized for influenza between October 1 and January 30, the peak of flu season. That’s in comparison to 8,633 Americans hospitalized for the flu during the same time frame the year prior.
Experts said the lack of flu cases was most likely due to COVID-19 measures like mask-wearing and social distancing. However, some are now worried the drop in cases could mean a rebound this year.
“The possibility of a ‘twindemic’ is pretty real this year,” Dr. Brian Dixon, director of Public Health Informatics at the Regenstrief Institute told WTHR.
In two new non-peer-reviewed study preprints, Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health estimated that there could be at least 20% more flu cases this year compared to a normal year or in a worst-case scenario, double the cases.
Hospitalizations could be three-fold their normal amount with an estimated 600,000 influenza hospitalizations, according to the analysis.
Dr. Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said in a press release that as COVID-19 measures are relaxed, the flu and other respiratory illnesses will resurge, but higher flu vaccinations rates can help ease hospitalizations.
“In a worst-case situation with a highly transmissible flu strain dominating and low influenza vaccination uptake, our predictive models indicate the potential for up to nearly half a million more flu hospitalizations this winter, compared to a normal flu season. Vaccinating as many people against flu as possible will be key to avoiding this scenario.”
The University’s analysis suggests that 75% of Americans would need to get a flu shot to avoid this worst-case scenario. In the 2019-2020 flu season 51.8% of Americans A little over half got a flu vaccine, the CDC reported.
David Kimberlin, co-director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told NBC News that he’s already seen kids enter the hospital this summer for respiratory illnesses normally seen in the winter, like the respiratory syncytial virus, croup, and hand, foot, and mouth disease.
Dr. Sean O’Leary, an infectious diseases physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, told NBC News in July that there isn’t a clear-cut explanation as to why these respiratory ailments are spreading in the summer but said one reason could be the loosening of social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing.
“There is a lot more mixing among people than there had been,” he said.
Kimberlin told the outlet his hospital is now overrun by the Delta variant and warned that adding a rise in flu cases to the mix “has the potential to be catastrophic.”
The US averaged 87,220 COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past week. Hospitals in some states, especially those with low vaccination rates, are at or close to full capacity.