Flu cases dip, but still ‘very high’ going into Thanksgiving week

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Flu activity has dipped slightly in Georgia but continues to rage heading into the busy Thanksgiving travel week.

Georgia is one of about a dozen states — most of them in the Southeast — with “very high” flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report on Friday. Even so, it marks a slight improvement from last week’s report showing Georgia had moved from shades of red to purple — the highest level in the very high category.

Credit: Centers for Disease Control

Credit: Centers for Disease Control

Pediatric hospitals across the country have been slammed for weeks by soaring numbers of very sick children. The surge is so serious that last week, the Georgia Department of Public Health urged adult hospitals — themselves jammed with patients — to admit some older teens to help alleviate the crush flooding pediatric hospitals. Emergency room wait times of up to eight hours have been reported and pediatric hospital systems are having to shift staffing and resources to meet the demand.

Dr. Andi Shane, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University, noted a slight easing over the past week.

“It appears we are getting a bit of a reprieve this week,” Shane said by email Friday. “The demand for beds has decreased this week, but we have to remain vigilant with the upcoming holidays. It’s not too late to get the flu shot or COVID-19 booster.”

In Georgia, 82% of pediatric intensive care beds are occupied, according to the most recent federal data. That’s down slightly from last week when 84% of pediatric ICU beds were full. But it’s still a staggering increase from April, when beds were just under 60% full.

There’s also been a slight decrease in ICU hospitalizations among adults with just under 80% of ICU beds occupied, down from about 84% last week.

Janet Christenbury, a spokesperson at Emory Healthcare, said in addition to an uptick in cases of respiratory viruses, the recent closure of Wellstar Health System’s Atlanta Medical Center has also played a role in higher volumes of patients and longer waits in the emergency rooms.

“We are here to support our community and those who come to any of our hospitals needing care. Longer wait times can be expected and we ask for your patience and grace as we serve all of those who need medical attention,” Christenbury said in an email.

This flu season got off to an unusually early and harsh start. Flu activity typically peaks between December and February, and it remains to be seen whether case numbers will continue to grow this winter or begin to wane.

“This is likely not only going to be the worst season in a decade for influenza but the earliest it’s ever hit in this area,” said Dr. Rodger MacArthur, an infectious disease physician at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

In the Southeast, the dominant seasonal flu strain is one often associated with severe illness and hospitalization, according to the CDC. It’s a subtype of the influenza A virus known by the scientific name of H3N2, which can be especially hard on children and older adults.

On Friday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a modest decrease in the number of patient visits to doctors for flu or flu-like illness during the week ending Nov. 12 to an estimated 7.9%, down from 9.2% the previous week.

There were 148 people in metro Atlanta hospitalized with influenza during the week ending Nov. 12. The latest report also shows a total of 12 adults have died as a result of the flu in Georgia so far this season, including two during this most recent week. Death numbers may be adjusted in the future due to a lag in death reporting.

The vast majority of intensive care unit hospitalizations at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are for respiratory viruses, according to a spokesperson, with flu-related hospitalizations accounting for most of the current surge. RSV, which had surged in infants and young children in August, September and October, has been slowing down in recent weeks. The number of children hospitalized for COVID-19 at Children’s is a distant third.

On Friday, 577 people in Georgia were hospitalized with COVID-19. They represented 3.5% of all hospitalized patients in the state.

AJC data journalist Stephanie Lamm contributed to this article.