Flu season off to an aggressive start as doctors implore people to get vaccinated

Influenza cases in Wisconsin and nationally are spiking, health officials say, as the "tripledemic" of flu, RSV and COVID-19 enters a new phase.

In Milwaukee County, Dr. Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor, said Tuesday that while there has been a two-week decline in RSV cases, the improvement has been countered by a "rapidly and aggressively increasing flu season."

"For example, at our children's hospital here, they saw a decline over two weeks of 16. Less RSV patients admitted, that's good news," Weston said. "But at the same time they saw 13 more influenza patients admitted, so bad news, and not a great trade off with stable hospital admissions but increasing influenza."

State data show the number of "influenza-like infections" took off more than a month earlier than each of the previous four years, and has already reached or surpassed the peak activity level of three of those years.

Local doctors say now is the time to get vaccinated. On Monday, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced that this year's flu vaccine is “a very good match” to the circulating strains of the virus.

Children's Wisconsin
Children's Wisconsin

In a Wednesday public question-and-answer session on respiratory viruses, doctors at Children's Wisconsin outlined their recommendations for when children, who can be particularly vulnerable to respiratory viruses, actually need to see a doctor.

"The No. 1 thing you can do to protect your child is to vaccinate them," said Dr. Kristin Bencik, a pediatrician at Children's Bayshore Pediatrics. "Vaccinate them against influenza and vaccinate them against COVID."

Vaccinations don't protect against getting sick 100% of the time, Bencik said, but they "prevent against hospitalization and death, which is most important."

More:Doctors warn flu season is 'fierce' and is getting worse. Here's what to know.

"Your kid might still get the flu, but if they have a flu shot, I can tell you they're going to have a lot lower fever and they're probably not going to be sick as many days and they're going to get back to life a lot faster," she said.

Less than 1 in 3 Wisconsinites had gotten a flu shot as of Thursday, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

In terms of COVID-19, case increases nationally and in local wastewater have been worth keeping an eye on to anticipate what could happen locally, Weston said Tuesday. By Thursday, he tweeted an update that the case positivity rate in Milwaukee County had surpassed 10% for the first time in months.

An updated COVID-19 booster shot, which protects against the original strain and the more contagious omicron variant, remains available to people regardless of their insurance status. As of Wednesday, 37.7% of Wisconsinites had received an additional booster shot, according to state data.

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More:New omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are available in Wisconsin. Here's what you should know about them.

In addition to getting vaccinated, taking precautions, like masking, hand washing, and staying home when you are sick, can all help protect vulnerable people and take the burden off of the heath care system. This is especially the case for Children's Wisconsin, whose youngest patients are among those who are most at risk for complications from many of these respiratory illnesses. There, the triaging is expected to continue.

"I hate to use this word but it is unprecedented with a number of viruses, head colds, wheezing and asthma exacerbations that we're seeing," said Dr. Megan Lynch, associate medical director of urgent care at Children's Wisconsin. "So we're very, very busy, which is bringing long wait times and there are going to be some days that we may not always be able to provide care at that point in time for your little one."

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Vaccine rate in Wisconsin lags behind aggressive start to flu season