Flu Rates Swell Post-Holidays, but COVID Is Less Severe: CDC

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Jan. 8, 2023 – Flu season continues to worsen nationwide, as 38 states have high or very high levels of the respiratory virus known for causing an onslaught of symptoms like a fever, sore throat, runny nose, and body aches.

January and February are the typical months for flu to peak, but it’s unclear whether this year’s edition of the virus’s annual rampage will become even more fierce. Health officials predict it will, at the very least, stay this bad for a while.

“We expect it to be elevated for several more weeks,” Alicia Budd, MPH, of the CDC’s influenza Division, told The Associated Press. She said that so far, this year’s flu season has been moderate.

Last week, CDC Director Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, predicted the flu would peak by the end of January, the AP reported.

More than 20,000 people were hospitalized for the flu during the week ending Dec. 30, up significantly from just under 15,000 the week prior. Health officials use hospitalization as an indication how severely the flu is affecting people. The latest data shows that nearly 1 in 5 flu tests are coming back positive.

On the COVID front, the variant JN.1 continues to expand. It now accounts for 62% of cases in the U.S., up from 44% 2 weeks ago. It’s also the most common variant worldwide. 

The CDC said in a Friday update that COVID activity nationwide is high, but cases are less severe than earlier in the pandemic.

“Wastewater viral levels, in particular, have increased rapidly over the last several weeks,” the update stated. “By comparison, measures of COVID-19-related illness requiring medical attention, such as emergency department visit rates, have also increased, but to a lesser extent and remain 21% lower than they were at the same time the year before.”

Another sign that COVID cases tend to be less severe is that the hospitalization rate is 22% lower than a year ago, and deaths linked to COVID are much lower, too. The CDC said the COVID cases are less severe not because of the virus's traits, but because 97% of people have some immunity from vaccines, prior infection, or both.

“This immune protection can fade over time but tends to last longer for preventing severe disease than for preventing infections,” the CDC explained in the Friday update, noting that “not enough Americans are vaccinated.”

“As of December 30, 2023, only 8% of children and 19% of adults report having received the updated COVID-19 vaccine. Only 38% of adults age 65 years and older report having received this vaccine, which is concerning given that they are at higher risk of hospitalization from COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, cases of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) appear to be on the decline. CDC data showed 9,083 cases nationwide for the week ending Dec. 30, down from a monthlong stretch of more than 11,000 weekly cases.