As another flu season is gearing up to sweep across the states, local health officials and medical providers are urging anyone over six months old to get vaccinated before the end of the month.
Chief Medical Officer of ConnectiCare, Dr. Indu Warrier, explained that this year's flu season is predicted to be significantly more severe than previous years as the state faces reduced COVID-19 mask and social distancing mandates.
"We are going to have a really bad flu season," she said. "So, it's important that we take precautions, including vaccinations, to prevent having the flu and spreading the flu."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that from October 2021 through June 2022, there were eight to 13 million flu illnesses, 82,000 to 170,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 5,000 to 14,000 deaths across the U.S.
In Connecticut, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 564 flu-related hospitalizations and 12 fatalities from June 2021 to 2022. Since restarting data collection on Oct. 1, DPH has reported 65 cases, two hospitalizations and zero fatalities due to the flu.Who is at risk?
Although everyone is at risk of contracting the flu, specific demographics are more likely to develop severe complications like pneumonia and neurological problems, Warrier said.
According to the CDC, individuals most susceptible to flu-related complications include pregnant people, young children, seniors and people living with chronic illnesses, such as asthma and diabetes.
Warrier explained that the flu vaccine acts as a first line of defense but may not prevent someone from contracting the flu. However, the chances of hospitalization and developing severe or fatal complications are significantly lessened.
According to the CDC, an individual is 40-60% less likely to contract the flu after vaccination. But, the CDC also estimated that flu vaccines prevented eight million influenza illnesses, four million medical visits, 105,000 hospitalizations and 6,300 deaths during the 2019 to 2020 season.
"That's the reason why we need to get vaccinated to ensure that we are able to stop the spread of the infection and also to make sure that complications from these infections can be prevented," Warrier said.
Vaccines also help create herd immunity that can protect individuals unable to receive a flu vaccine, said Mary Blankson, chief nursing officer at Community Health Center. She explained that doctors often recommend new parents receive a flu vaccine to protect their newborn.
"The higher our community immunity is... the more protected they are, as well," she said. "You're doing it for yourself. You're doing it for your family." Driving factors
U.S. scientists make seasonal virus predictions based on information gathered from the Southern Hemisphere, namely Australia, and their flu season, said Dr. Henry Anyimadu, chief of infectious diseases at Midstate Medical Center and Hospital of Central Connecticut.
Australia's flu season typically lasts in the winter months – starting in May and ending by October.
Anyimadu explained that flu seasons often mirror one another across the hemispheric divide and provide foundational predictions on the severity of illness and the effectiveness of vaccines.
According to the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care, their 2022 flu season was the worst in over five years. In addition, the 2022 flu season peaked in June, indicating an earlier start date.
Anyimadu explained that the country reported more than twice the number of cases than their 2019 season. He said that the primary concerns lay with how early the season started, the rate of infection and hospitalization, and the length of illness.
Several factors drive high infection rates, primarily lax mask mandates and social distance rules. Anyimadu explained that masks, social distancing and high vaccination rates helped keep flu infection rates low. However, although COVID is still a concern, many states have relaxed their restrictions, leading to higher rates of infection.
"When the weather gets cold, people begin to get together more inside rather than outside. Respiratory virus just takes that advantage, goes around, and people get infected," he explained. "So, there's a lot of other respiratory viruses going around. That's more the reason why we all have to be cautious," he explained. Local efforts tovaccinate
Getting a yearly flu vaccine is like upgrading your cell phone, said Kate Glendon, public health specialist for the Chesprocott Health District. Like new phones debut every year, flu vaccines are constantly being improved.
"Viruses mutate and different strains develop," she said. "To be able to be protected from some of the viruses, you have to get the most up-to-date vaccines."
Health departments and medical providers across the state are hosting flu vaccine clinics to curb infection rates.
The Wallingford Health Department is hosting walk-in vaccine clinics at the Wallingford Public Library on Oct. 22nd from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Oct. 26th from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
In Meriden, the city's Health and Human Services department is hosting free flu vaccine clinics on Nov. 8, Nov. 22, Dec. 6 and Dec. 27 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. In addition, director Lea Crown said that all Meriden residents could call their department and receive a flu shot.
Glendon said that the Chesprocott Health District began hosting free flu vaccine clinics for Cheshire, Wolcott and Prospect residents in September. She explained that they host many clinics in locations or events with high foot traffic, such as at the Cheshire Fall Festival and the senior centers in the towns.
"We definitely want to make sure that people have access to [the vaccine]," she said. "The more that we can be out there, the better."