'Overwhelmed': Influenza rampant at FSU and FAMU as experts point to flu vaccine hesitancy

Tallahassee higher education campuses and hospitals are seeing large numbers of students and others suffering from influenza.

Experts, many of whom have warned about a severe flu season for months, say this is the result of a return to normalcy and lessening of safety precautions taken while COVID-19 numbers were at its highest.

At Florida State University, the school's health center is full of sick students.

"Case numbers have skyrocketed and our University Health Center is overwhelmed with caring for ill students," said an internal email from FSU Provost Sally McRorie to faculty obtained by the Democrat.

More flu coverage, powered by USA TODAY:

The email asks professors not to send students to the health center for a medical excuse for absences or delayed work – a request that was first introduced because of COVID-19. An FSU professor, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Democrat Wednesday he "had 40% of one class missing today."

Amy Magnuson, director of FSU’s Health Services, says they have over 20 new cases a day – a number that is steadily increasing, but is likely much less than the actual total.

Meanwhile, at FAMU there were 102 positive flu cases reported from the university's community site on Wednesday alone, according to FAMU Director of Health Services Tanya Tatum.

"We are seeing a lot of cases of the flu," Tatum said. "I'm concerned."

Beginning Monday, Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare started treating 50-60 people a day, in addition to the emergency department’s hospital’s usual volume, said Dr. Sam Ashoo, an emergency medicine doctor who has been working directly on flu patients.

The hospital's various urgent care centers went from treating about 100-120 people a day, to around 140-150 patients daily.

These increases, Ashoo says, are directly linked to flu infections among young people.

“Currently, it’s pretty severe,” he said. “We’re seeing a very large number of people in their late teens and early 20s with influenza for the past few days.”

Dr. Nectar Aintablian, a pediatric infectious disease expert at TMH, urged people to get their flu vaccine to protect them from getting sick, especially those in high-risk categories. She added that those feeling flu-like symptoms – including a cough, high fever, runny nose and fatigue – should stay home and isolate themselves.

"I have fear (the flu) may come back with a vengeance this year, because we had such low numbers last year as people were very careful with going out, wearing masks," she said.

"Please don't wait to get your flu shot."

Capital Regional Medical Center is also experiencing the rise in flu cases, said Spokesperson Rachel Stiles, who did not provide any statistics.

Alan Cox, the assistant superintendent of Leon County Schools, said the district is expecting an uptick in flu cases but, as of Friday morning, there has not yet been an increase.

This recent spike in flu cases comes only three years after Tallahassee's hospitals – along with the rest of the country – struggled to keep up with the worst flu season in a decade.

From 2018: Tallahassee hospitals grappling with worst flu season in 10 years

Athletics and long wait times at FSU

This year, the flu already seems to be back with a vengeance, affecting athletes while potentially spreading in classrooms and dorms.

Several athletes across Florida State University's athletics program are, and have been, dealing with flu-like symptoms.

Maya Anderson, an FSU freshman, noticed a cough Monday and by the following day she was running a 102.4 fever and vomiting. She went to Patients First, a clinic, on Lake Ella and was able to walk-in and out in under an hour.

"There's several people on my floor that are sick," she said about her Magnolia Hall dorm. "Most of my friends are sick."

The next day Anderson checked the website of the same clinic she sought care and was met with a 655 minute wait time – nearly 11 hours.

A reporter called the university's health services line for appointment wait-times Thursday morning and found it was "at capacity" for the day.

For those looking for a flu shot, the university recently started a mobile vaccine unit called Flu-ber that meets students wherever they are on campus.

On Health Services’ Twitter and Instagram, updates on Flu-Ber’s location are posted periodically.

Flu shots are available from numerous medical providers, pharmacies, the health department and others.
Flu shots are available from numerous medical providers, pharmacies, the health department and others.

“It's important for everybody to get a flu shot, but especially anybody with underlying health conditions,” Magnuson said.

“I think as far as prevention goes, face coverings or at least covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze can help prevent the spread of flu and of course COVID.”

Vaccine hesitancy at FAMU

The spike in flu infections on FAMU connects to an overarching problem that, according to Tatum, has been with the university for the last year – vaccine hesitancy.

The school has put aside $1 million for cash prizes in order to incentivize vaccination for students. However, Tatum says most of that money has not been given out because students just aren’t willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine or flu shot.

“Our campus population for the most part isn't great about getting shots at all. I couldn't give away 150 doses of flu vaccine last year, and this year we haven't given away 100 doses yet,” Tatum said. “We have a lot of individuals who say 'I've never had the flu, I'm not getting a vaccination...' "

"There's just a real aversion to getting immunizations.”

Tatum echoes Magnuson and encourages everyone to get tested for the flu and consider the vaccine.

“Right now is a really critical time. It’s before your Thanksgiving break and then you come back and there's finals. I think the loss of that time in your academic program is... at a really critical point."

National flu warnings

During an early October White House briefing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned that the United States was at risk for a severe flu season heading into the fall and winter months this year.

She linked this, like Aintablian, to a reduced immunity against influenza as cases plummeted to an all-time low last flu season.

She also echoed warnings of a "twindemic," adding that the flu could also increase demand on healthcare facilities nationwide, which could cause an avalanche effect if another COVID wave arrives.

More: Experts renew warnings of 'twindemic' as US enters flu season amid rising COVID-19 cases: 'We face the same threat this year'

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and the risk of both flu and COVID-19 circulating could put additional strain on hospitals and frontline health care professionals,” she said.

Where to get a flu shot

There are many places Tallahasseeans can go for a free flu shot like CVS and Walgreens, the country’s two largest retail pharmacies, which offer co-administration of the COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.

Popular supermarket chains like Publix, Walmart and Winn Dixie are also administering flu vaccines in addition to walk-in clinics and family physicians.

"It's free and you can get the flu shot at the same time as the COVID vaccine," TMH's Dr. Aintablian said. "Don't postpone it, protect yourself and others."

Contact Christopher Cann at ccann@tallahassee.com and follow @ChrisCannFL on Twitter.

Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Flu cases spike in Tallahassee hospitals, FAMU and FSU