DENVER, Colorado — Health officials have officially declared this flu season an epidemic, which means there could be a triple epidemic situation in the future— with flu, RSV and COVID.
For the first time in a decade, the U.S. is seeing its highest flu hospitalization rates for this time of year. It comes at a prime time for health fatigue, as more people put aside their COVID safety measures like mask-wearing, hand washing and extra cleaning.
"COVID, the pandemic has changed the thinking on so many different types of activities and surroundings, and you hope society becomes more protected as a result of what we've learned from COVID, not less," said Dr. James Neid, who is the director of Infection Medical Prevention for the Medical Center of Aurora.
Neid may be working in a state that hasn't seen high flu numbers yet, but he says he is still urging his community to take action.
"Prevention is really where it's at. If we cannot go to these extreme situations, that's where we'd all want it. Where it's treatable and manageable as opposed to be under-vaccinated and overwhelmed," Neid said.
Seventeen states, along with Washington, D.C. and New York City, are reporting high or very high respiratory illness activity. Virginia is one of those states.
Dr. Brooke Rossheim is a public health physician specialist with the Office of Epidemiology in Virginia. He points out that these high numbers are in direct correlation with human activity over the last few years.
"We're seeing high levels of flu activity in virtually every region of the state," said Dr. Rossheim. "We didn't see much influenza activity really because of a number of things. Number one people were masking up and number two, this may have been the more important thing, people were kind of quarantined."
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that so far this season, there have been at least 1.6 million flu cases, 13,00 hospitalizations and 730 deaths.
"It's hard to tease out whether that's due to not masking, is it due to people just being out and about more, is it due to school being in session? I think it's probably some combination of all of the above," said Rossheim. "It's not that people's immune systems aren't functioning well. Now we're kind of playing a little bit of immune catch up if you will."
Experts say the key to staying healthy is getting vaccinated.
"I think that's maybe understandable fatigue, but the fact of the matter is there is virtually no downside, and they are extremely effective, and influenza kills tens of thousands of people a year, and that's not nothing," Dr. Neid said.
Across the U.S., flu vaccination rates are lower than usual. Experts point out that adult flu vaccinations are down about 5 million compared to where they were last year at the same time. In addition, the CDC data tracker says just 8.4% of eligible Americans have received a new updated COVID-19 booster.
"Respiratory viruses, respiratory illnesses are problematic. They cause missed work, preventing them is the best thing by far," Neid said. "The flu season typically lasts for four to six months so if you haven't gotten it now it's still a great time to get it."