Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned of extremely high levels of respiratory illness in the U.S. on Monday, particularly flu hospitalizations, and made another call for people to stay up to date on their vaccinations.
In a briefing, Walensky said the U.S. is seeing elevated levels of COVID-19, the flu and RSV. The CDC director noted higher levels of the latter two viruses compared to last year.
“Levels of flu-like illness, which includes people going to doctors with a fever and a cough or sore throat, are either high or very high level in 47 jurisdictions, and that is up from 36 jurisdictions just last week,” Walensky said.
According to Walensky, the CDC estimates that since the start of October, there have been at least 8.7 million cases of flu, 78,000 related hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths detected.
Two more pediatric deaths due to flu were reported last week, bringing the total for this season to 14.
“Flu hospital admissions reported through HHS’s hospital surveillance system, which were already high for this time of year, have nearly doubled during the last reporting period compared to the week prior,” said Walensky. “Hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen at this time of year in a decade, demonstrating the significantly earlier flu season we are experiencing.”
According to CDC data, about 26 percent of U.S. adults have received a flu vaccine, slightly higher than the vaccine coverage at this time last year. However, Walensky noted vaccination rates are lower among some high-risk groups, including children, adults over 65 and pregnant people.
Flu vaccination rates for pregnant people were significantly lower across all ethnicities. Among non-Hispanic white pregnant people, vaccine uptake was 14 percent lower. This drop was even greater among non-Hispanic Asian pregnant people, with 15 percent fewer getting the shot compared to last year.
Sandra Fryhofer, board chair of the American Medical Association, said during the briefing that it was particularly important for pregnant people to get vaccinated against the flu because this protection would in turn be conferred to their infants, who are not eligible for vaccination for the first six months of their lives.
“I want to emphasize that flu vaccine can be life-saving and importantly there is still time to get vaccinated to be protected against flu this season,” Walensky said.
The CDC director also noted an “unfortunate and expected” rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country following the Thanksgiving holiday.
She urged people to get the updated COVID-19 booster if they have not done so already, stating that those who received their first two shots are still considered fully vaccinated but are not considered fully protected against the coronavirus.
“Both the updated COVID-19 vaccines and this year’s flu vaccines were formulated to protect against the viruses that are currently circulating right now,” Walensky said. “And recent data from CDC show updated COVID-19 vaccines help protect against COVID-19 illness and COVID-19-associated deaths. Early surveillance shows that people who receive their updated COVID-19 vaccine this year were nearly 15 times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to people who are not vaccinated.”