The Centers for Disease Control is warning of the worst flu season in over a decade, with more than 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths across the nation this year alone. Mississippi’s health system, already struggling with the damage from years of COVID-19, is feeling the consequences of the surge as well.
Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a physician and member of the Mississippi State Medical Association’s Board of Trustees, told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview that a confluence of illnesses is filling out Mississippi’s limited hospital availability. “We’re seeing a triple whammy right now,” she said. “We’re seeing RSV, flu and COVID. The hospitals are largely full.”
The silver lining, she added, is that there are both preventative and therapeutic options to reduce the virus’ severity and stay out of the hospital. “That’s one of the many reasons why we vaccinate—to keep things under control in our hospitals and clinics,” she said.
‘An Ebb and Flow’
The situation is not as dire as it was at the earlier peaks of COVID, when the virus filled the state’s emergency rooms and intensive-care units. “There’s an ebb and flow,” Bryan continued. “Then, when somebody was in a bed, they stayed for (much longer).”
But Mississippi State Department of Health surveillance shows that Mississippi is in the middle of a serious spike of influenza-like illness, along with much of the rest of the country. MSDH’s surveillance data are showing a rate of influenza-like illness nearly three times higher than last year.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that fewer than half of all Americans intend to get the flu shot this year, forgoing the best preventative measure against the virus. Additionally, populations that show lower proportions of flu vaccination report higher rates of flu and serious outcomes.
Yet the current flu shot is proving to be remarkably effective against this year’s strain of influenza. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a Monday press event that “we … look in real time as to how well we think the influenza match is to what is circulating right now. The good news is that it looks like it is a very good match.”
The University of Mississippi Medical Center is showing a slow rise in influenza hospitalizations, Assistant Director of Media Relations Ruth Cummins explained. “Typically, we see more ER and outpatient clinic patients with flu, and for adults, we see more hospitalizations in high-risk patients,” she wrote in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press.
UMMC’s Dr. Bhagyashri Navalkele, associate professor at UMMC’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said in a statement that flu vaccination remains the single best option for preventing serious illness, even late into flu season. “Everyone six months of age who is eligible to get the vaccine should do so every year. It’s never too late to get a flu shot at any point during the flu season,” he said.
Other precautions for respiratory viruses apply to flu prevention as well. Navalkele listed “frequent and thorough hand washing, avoiding people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and trying to social distance when in the public or crowded spaces,” as strong preventative measures.
Nationally, experts worry that pandemic fatigue is resulting in less vigilance toward other, less lethal illnesses. Natural immunity to the flu may be reduced, too, through several years of successful prevention thanks to social distancing and masking.
But while this influenza season cannot begin to compare with the worst of COVID, medical professionals in Mississippi are warning the public to take it seriously. “The flu can have potentially severe complications,” Navalkele wrote. “It’s very important for people at higher risk of serious flu to decrease their risk by getting the vaccine.”
Both young children and elderly adults are most at risk. “It’s particularly deadly with younger people and our elderly and immunocompromised,” Bryan explained.
Beyond the flu shot, antiviral drugs like Tamiflu can reduce the severity of illness and shorten the duration. MSDH guidance encourages these drugs to be taken as early in the course of illness as is possible. “For those at high risk,” the agency warns, “antiviral drugs can mean the difference between having a milder illness or more a serious illness, hospitalization or death.”