Officials fear a resurgent flu season as COVID-19 restrictions fade, schools reopen

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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer watches as she is joined by L.A. County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis and Los Angeles Council President Nury Martinez during a news conference ahead of the City Council's vote to create a citywide vaccine mandate for people entering many indoor public spaces. The ordinance, introduced by Council President Martinez and Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell, would require eligible individuals to be vaccinated to enter indoor public spaces, including but not limited to restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gyms, sports arenas, museums, spas, nail salons, all indoor City facilities and more. The City's ordinance aligns with the Los Angeles County Department of Health's order and expands on the restrictions to include more indoor settings and businesses, as well as establishes guidelines for Outdoor Large Events (5,000 to 9,999 persons). Both the Department of Public Health and the Department of Building and Safety will enforce this mandate. City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer speaks last month about a citywide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for people entering many indoor public spaces. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The flu season was mild last year thanks in large part to social distancing and other measures taken amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But with some of those public health rules easing and a flattening of coronavirus cases linked to the highly infectious Delta variant, health experts are worried that a troubling flu season could be ahead, and they are urging people to take precautions now.

"Because we didn't have a lot of flu circulating last year, I would say none of us are benefiting from any sort of that kind of immunity that we might have developed from having the flu," L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said recently. "So everybody's a little bit worried about having a tough flu season this year."

A year ago, most schools were closed and many people were still at home. The reopening of classrooms is one reason officials say a flu resurgence is possible.

"Children really are good transmitters of flu," Ferrer said.

Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, an Orange County deputy health officer, urged parents and their children to get flu shots before Halloween.

"We want our kids vaccinated against the flu … before they go out and trick-or-treat," Chinsio-Kwong said at a recent briefing.

In some parts of California, flu cases are already up compared with recent years.

San Diego County has already reported 195 lab-confirmed flu cases this season. That's 34% higher than the average for this time period over the last five years.

Flu surveillance in San Diego County
(San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency)

And while the overall number of flu cases is low, it is still quite early in the season, which typically peaks between December and February and can last through May. Over the last five years, San Diego County has confirmed through testing an average of about 12,000 flu cases a year.

Health officials say that given the pace of new flu cases, it's all the more reason to get a flu shot. The flu can result in 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually in the United States.

"Get vaccinated as soon as possible," Dr. Cameron Kaiser, a San Diego County deputy public health officer, said in a statement. “Getting a flu shot is especially important given that COVID-19 is still negatively impacting our communities."

"We need as many people as possible to be vaccinated for influenza," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a recent briefing. "CDC’s flu experts are concerned that reduced population-level immunity to the seasonal flu could place us at risk for a potentially severe flu season this year."

Health officials have traditionally struggled to persuade most adults to get their flu shot — which are available as an injection or a nasal spray — but they did notice an uptick recently. The CDC estimates that 50% to 55% of adults nationwide got a flu vaccine during the 2020-21 season; that was better than the 48% of adults the previous season.

"We had higher rates of flu vaccination last year, and we're hoping that holds for this year as well," Ferrer said.

Nonetheless, the rates of flu vaccination are less than that for the COVID-19 vaccine. Nationally, 68% of adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as are more than 71% of Californian adults.

Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6 months and older. Those at particular risk for complications of the flu are seniors, those with chronic health conditions and children, especially those younger than 5.

It takes about two weeks following administration of the flu shot for it to offer full protection.

And people can get a flu and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, Walensky said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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