State health officials are sounding the alarm on what’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, and urging everyone to get an annual flu vaccination.
Tom Haupt, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Influenza Surveillance Coordinator and Respiratory Disease Epidemiologist, said in a press conference Tuesday that about 6,300 cases of influenza were confirmed in Wisconsin in the past week, while there were only about 100 cases through the entire 2020-21 flu season, when most people were wearing masks in public and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Jasmine Zapata, Chief Medical Officer of the DHS Bureau of Community Health Promotion, said flu season is worse than usual in part because people have moved away from those pandemic safety measures.
“We’re seeing increases in individuals getting the flu, being hospitalized with the flu, getting ill from the flu … So we’re a little worried about that,” she said. “There’s no way that we can say exactly why. But some of the thoughts are, over the last few years, especially because we’ve been in the height of the COVID 19 pandemic. And people had been wearing masks more, doing more social distancing, more vigilant about hand washing and staying away from people who are ill. Our flu numbers actually were very low over the last few years. And now this year, as we’re seeing less of that, we are seeing an emergence of the flu.”
Flu is not a serious illness for many people, but can be deadly for vulnerable populations, Zapata said.
“The highest hospitalization and death rates are actually (in) infants younger than six months,” she said. “So it’s extremely important that we take this seriously.”
Zapata said masking and distancing can help mitigate the spread of flu, but the best measure is to get vaccinated – something she said not enough Wisconsinites have done.
“The flu shot is definitely safe and effective for people six months and older,” she said. “It’s so important to protect yourself and people around you from serious illness.”
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Zapata said only about 31% of Wisconsin residents have been vaccinated this year, and most of those are over 65.
“Only 20% of the people between ages 18 and 49 have received the flu shot,” she said. “That’s an important age group because that’s the age group that’s out in the workforce and is out in schools and has the potential to get the flu and spread it to others because of their frequent contact with people outside of their homes.”
Haupt said that despite some misconceptions, this year’s flu vaccine is well-matched to the dominant strains of the flu virus.
In an interview for the It’s Only 10 Minutes podcast, Zapata said there are also racial disparities in vaccination.
“We show 30% of white Wisconsinites received their flu vaccine, nearly 26% of our state’s Asian population, just over 18% of American Indian and Alaska Natives, and then just over 17% of Black Wisconsinites,” she said. “This is concerning because we know that Black, Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native people have had consistently higher rates of severe flu outcomes, including hospitalization and intensive care unit admission. Just like we saw with COVID 19 pandemic, different racial backgrounds have been impacted in equity in ways that are inequitable.”
Zapata said she and the state DHS recognize that it’s not always easy for people to access the vaccine, but that anyone can call 211 or visit vaccines.gov to find out the easiest way to get vaccinated.