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Health officials brace for influenza onslaught

“People are taking riskier behaviors, like not masking coming out of the darkness of COVID.” —Dr. Ulysses Wu, Chief Epidemiologist, Hartford HealthCare

The 2022-2023 flu season in Connecticut is off to a fast and furious start, with more than 6,000 influenza cases, 102 hospitalizations and the first flu-related death reported last month, according to Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner for the Department of Public Health.

“Right now, we are in the midst of a bad flu season,” said Juthani during a press conference on Monday, Nov. 28.

“We have not seen a flu season this early over the last four years,” and cases are continuing to trend up, said the health commissioner. “We can only expect that they will get higher.”

To add to the early onslaught of seasonal influenza, numerous unidentified viral infections, plus RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), as well as COVID-19, are circulating simultaneously, explained Dr. Mark Marshall, vice president of medical affairs at Nuvance’s Sharon Hospital.

At least 10 different viruses are out there causing respiratory illness, he noted. “So there is flu, but there is more than flu – there’s flu-plus.”

Marshal said laboratory testing results at Sharon Hospital reveal that while COVID-19 positivity rates have declined in recent months, positivity rates for influenza and RSV are soaring.

The lab ran 251 influenza tests in November, of which 8.8% were positive compared to 3.1% in October.

Likewise, 57 RSV tests that were run in November revealed a 35.1% positivity compared to only 4% positivity in October.

Of the 595 COVID tests taken in November, 6.7% were positive, a drop from October’s positivity rate of 8.9%, according to hospital data.

The pandemic partly to blame

The 2020-2021 flu season was mild compared to pre-pandemic years. So why is this year’s flu season so bad?

There are three reasons, said Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiologist at Hartford HealthCare, parent entity of Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington.

The first is due to behavior, he said. “People are taking riskier behaviors, like not masking coming out of the darkness of COVID.”

Also, said Wu, fewer people have been receiving the flu vaccine, and many have not been exposed to influenza over the past few years due to a combination of COVID-19 restrictions and low circulating flu levels.

At Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, hospitalizations are on an uptick due to respiratory illness, “but these numbers are fairly low with regard to influenza,” at least for now, Wu explained.

“Influenza always peaks in February, and the problem is that it’s a little early this year,” said the epidemiologist. “Plus, it’s not the peak that we have to worry about…it’s the upswing.”

He said health officials are bracing for a difficult winter with a combination of influenza, RSV and COVID-19.

Hospital capacity

Juthani said the DPH has been communicating with hospitals statewide regarding contingency plans should hospitals become overwhelmed this winter.

In the Northwest Corner, representatives of both Sharon Hospital and Charlotte Hungerford Hospital said they are able to optimize capacity within their respective health systems should hospital capacity become a problem.

So far, Litchfield County has seen lower flu activity than southern portions of the state, said Robert Rubbo, Director of Health for the Torrington Area Health District.

Rubbo cautioned that “most of our residents travel quite a bit” and pathogens know no boundaries.

“We are definitely seeing [flu] activity out there now.”

Rubbo strongly encouraged people to get the flu vaccine this year, which is available at the Torrington Health District, as well as local pharmacies.

Marshall also stressed the importance of getting vaccinated both for influenza and COVID-19. The good news, he said, is that the influenza and bivalent vaccines are “quite effective.”

Rubbo noted that as people gather indoors for the holidays and during colder months, the risk of catching and spreading pathogens increases. “Masking is probably what prevented a bad flu season last year, plus keeping your distance and not going out if you’re sick,” said Marshall. “We’ve been trained in the COVID era to protect ourselves as well as protect others” from dangerous pathogens.

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