An estimated 6 million to 7 million people have been sick with influenza so far this winter, and as many as 84,000 may have had to be hospitalized for the illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday.
While flu activity across the country is picking up and plenty of people are experiencing influenza’s nasty grip, this season is playing out so far in a milder fashion than last year’s, said Dr. Alicia Fry, branch chief for epidemiology in CDC’s Influenza Division.
Last season was one of the worst on record. The CDC estimated that nearly 80,000 people died from the flu in 2017-2018, which was classified as a high severity season.
“Right now none of our indicators for this time of year … are anywhere near the range they were last year,” Fry told STAT. She cautioned, though, that that doesn’t mean people should be cavalier about influenza this winter. “Where this season will turn up we just don’t know yet.”
This is the first year in which the CDC is issuing estimates on the toll of a flu season while it is still in progress. In the past, these estimates, which are derived using mathematical models, were published once per season, after the flu activity had subsided.
The plan is to issue weekly estimates of how many people have been sickened by influenza, how many went to a doctor for care, and how many became so sick they were admitted to hospital.
These types of figures are easier for people to understand than some of the metrics found in the CDC’s weekly update on influenza activity, FluView, Fry explained.
Drawing on surveillance data from across the country, FluView reports on of things like the percentage of people tested for flu who were actually infected with the virus and the percentage of visits to doctors that are for flu-like illness.
But the general public may not grasp the significance of the fact that in the last week of December, for instance, 4.1 percent of doctors office visits were for influenza-like symptoms. This week’s report — estimating that between 2.9 million and 3.5 million people have been to a doctor so far this season because they have the flu — makes more sense, officials believe. “It’s easier for people to understand,” Fry said.
Both FluView and the new weekly estimates of the toll the flu season is taking will be posted weekly on the CDC’s website on Friday mornings.
Senior Writer, Infectious Disease
Helen Branswell covers issues broadly related to infectious diseases, including outbreaks, preparedness, research, and vaccine development.