Flu Season Is Absolutely Hammering the South

Price flu shot 3
Tom Price, then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, attends a press conference about influenza prevention for the upcoming flu season at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on September 28. The Southern U.S. has gotten slammed by influenza, according to new data released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Southern United States has gotten absolutely slammed by influenza relative to the rest of the country, according to new data released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Flu has really hit our part of the country really hard,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “In the last two weeks, our laboratory-documented and hospitalized flu cases have rocketed up.” 

Flu does usually strike one part of the country first, he said; at one point, the West Coast was typically hit first, though patterns have shifted in recent years. “There’s some flu everywhere, essentially, but some parts of the country have been affected more than others,” he said.

ILI_WeeklyMap As of December 23, the Southern United States is seeing a particularly high number of people with illnesses that look like the flu. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Why is this happening? No one really knows. “Flu is fickle,” he said. “There’s no good telling why some areas are affected than others.” However, Schaffner noted, all the travel that people did over the holiday week—which wouldn’t be reflected in this latest data, which only counted cases up to December 23—could help move flu around the country. 

Among Southern states, Florida appears to be an outlier—thankfully, given the state’s reputation as a home for older snowbirds. Older people are particularly vulnerable to the flu; the rate of hospitalization due to the flu reported by the CDC for people over 65 years old is far higher than it is for any other age group. “I’m grateful that it hasn’t hit that population as hard as the rest of the country, so far,” he said. However, he noted, “Give it time.”  

H3N2 has remained the dominant strain of flu seen throughout the country, though Schaffner noted that in the last week, more and more of the cases are actually due to a different strain known as H1N1. H3N2 is typically associated with more serious cases of the flu and more people being hospitalized because of the illness. 

“We haven't calculated it out, things are moving too fast,” Schaffner said. “But talking to the surveillance nurses, it looks like every other case is an H1N1.” 

It’s not unusual that more than one flu strain is showing up at the same time. However, if this shift toward H1N1 is seen throughout the country, it might mean good news for people who got their flu shots. Most flu shots protect against multiple strains. Although most vaccines are generally less effective against H3N2, according to the CDC’s website, they can do a pretty good job against H1N1.

If you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, Schaffner said, “run, don’t walk, and get yourself vaccinated.” It can take up to 10 days for the vaccine’s full effects to kick in.