Seven states have seen surges in flu cases in the past week as the virus takes off unseasonably early once again.
Covid lockdowns have warped the flu season which has meant that for the past two years cases have started and peaked earlier than usual — with last year’s season emerging in October.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed flu infections were surging across southern and southwestern areas last week. In Louisiana, the worst affected state, admissions rose 50 percent to be behind nearly six percent of all hospital visits.
Levels of respiratory illness were also ‘high’ in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and South Carolina, surveillance showed.
For comparison, in the previous week only New Mexico and Alaska were reporting ‘high’ flu levels.
Nationally, flu hospitalizations rose 50 percent in a week to 8,000 patients admitted since the season began. Deaths since the season started rose 48 percent, to 490 fatalities.
This map shows flu levels by state. It reveals these were highest in southern and south-western regions of the US last week
This map shows flu levels across the US in the first week of November
And this graph shows how the number of people admitted to hospital with the flu is starting to tick up as winter approaches
The above shows flu cases in the US, revealing they are also on the rise. The dominant type is Type A this year, which generally causes a milder disease
The November surge comes before a typical flu season, which normally strikes in December or January and peaks by the end of February.
Experts said this could still be a ‘lockdown effect’ because — after years kept apart by concerns — more people are behaving like it is an ‘intense normal’ and making plans to see family and friends.
They also pointed to anecdotal evidence suggesting there were even fewer face masks are around now compared to the same time last year.
Flu surveillance relies in part on reports of people with flu-like symptoms who go to doctor’s offices or hospitals.
Many of these patients are not tested for the flu, however, so their infections are not confirmed.
It is also possible patients are infected with another respiratory disease — like Covid or RSV — further confusing the figures.
The CDC estimates 780,000 people have already been infected with the flu and that there have been 8,000 hospitalizations and 490 deaths so far this season.
The hospitalization rate for flu is currently estimated to be 1.7 admissions per 100,000 people.
This is above the normal level for this time of year.
Over the five years before the pandemic, this rate did not rise above 1.3 per 100,000 for this time of year.
Experts say there may be fewer hospitalizations and deaths because Type A is the dominant strain this year — which tends to cause milder infections.
Of the 3,000 flu cases reported to the CDC last week, 71 percent — or 2,144 cases — were caused by Type A.
Surveillance also showed flu levels were moderate but rising in New York City, Arkansas, California, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
And while flu levels have been high in Alaska for weeks, the state did not report data last week, so it wasn’t part of the latest count.
Alicia Budd, an epidemiologist who leads the CDC’s flu surveillance team, said several indicators were showing ‘continued increases’ in flu cases.
Dr William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, suggested lockdowns could still be behind the early flu season because they were driving an ‘intense normal’.
He told DailyMail.com: ‘People are behaving in an intensely normal pre-Covid fashion and we are not seeing many people wearing masks anymore.
‘It has been reported that travel expected around Thanksgiving may perhaps set records.
‘This could be influenced by lockdowns, with people being out and about more and now feeling better about the economy and being more willing to spend money on travel.
‘I think all this travel indicates people are looking forward to reunions and get togethers for the Thanksgiving period.’
Dr Scott Roberts, an infectious diseases expert at Yale University in Connecticut, suggested lockdowns could also still be behind the early surge because they may have weakened people’s immunity.
‘It is possible that we have had changes in our immunity against flu since we went a year or more in some regions without exposure to the virus.
‘This essentially led to waning immunity with a year to catch up on.
‘The other point is virus evolution. Is this H1N1 strain the same as before Covid? How much has it changed from a genetic level from pre-Covid to now? These are questions we need to answer.’
Official data shows that the positivity rate for Covid — or the proportion of tests picking up the virus — is no longer falling. This suggests infections may again be rising
Flu was virtually absent in 2020 when virus control measures — such as social distancing and stay-home orders — also stopped it from spreading.
Cases only started to rise again in late 2021 when restrictions were mostly eased and people were mixing more often after being vaccinated.
Last year’s flu season also struck early, arriving in October instead of December or January — which at the time was also suggested to be down to lockdowns shifting immunity levels and changing movement patterns.
A flu vaccine is being rolled out in the US at the moment, offered to everyone aged six months and older.
Latest data showed about 35 percent of adults had come forward for the shots while among children 33 percent had received the vaccine.
Covid cases are also on the rise, surveillance shows, in a warning sign the US could be hit with a ‘double whammy’ of infectious diseases.
Wastewater surveillance reported by Biobot suggests Covid cases are rising, with the virus concentration rising from 425 to 444 copies per milliliter (ml) of sewage.
Covid hospitalizations are also rising, with admissions hitting 16,000 in the week to November 11 compared to almost 15,000 the previous week. This is, however, still well below the 24,000 recorded at the same time last year.
Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are also on the rise, with indicators showing the positivity rate — proportion of tests that detect the virus — hit 14 percent last week compared to below 10 percent last month.