‘Potentially severe’ flu season arrives in Georgia’s classrooms

Health officials warn the early flu cases could set the stage for the anticipated “twindemic”

Health officials in the Atlanta area are reporting numerous cases of seasonal influenza as the CDC warns of a “potentially severe” flu season as the nation enters a third fall season of COVID-19 cases.

In the fall of both 2020 and 2021, health authorities feared the so-called “twindemic” -- a convergence of seasonal flu with pandemic COVID-19, but the numbers of flu cases were low, probably because of masking and social distancing preventive measures against COVID-19. Those precautions are not mandatory this fall, however.

In the Atlanta area, the start of in-person school this August brought a surge of sick children, many seen by the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospital system for treatment of upper respiratory illnesses including RSV, influenza and COVID-19, according to CHOA public relations manager Allyson Wright.

In response to high emergency department volumes and wait times, CHOA’s Scottish Rite Hospital in Sandy Springs assembled a medical tent outside its emergency department to use as an overflow area for general patient care. The tent was taken down in preparation for possible severe weather from Hurricane Ian but was reassembled over the weekend.

Fulton County School District officials said this week they are seeing an increase in flu-like illnesses and respiratory illnesses in some schools.

The district said it is working to compile case numbers but meanwhile is urging parents to practice “preventive and interventional measures” such as regular handwashing, coughing or sneezing into the elbow and keeping students at home when sick.

The CDC this week urged that people get the flu vaccine to protect against a “potentially severe” flu season.

“Based on what we have seen in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, flu has the potential to hit us hard this year,” William Schaffner, director of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases, said in the CDC statement.

“On a positive note, we have more preventive behaviors in our toolbox than we did before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Schaffner. “We are more accustomed to wearing masks and staying home when sick.”

A 2022 NFID survey shows only 49% of U.S. adults are planning to get flu vaccinations this season.

The CDC said that is cause for concern, as flu vaccination rates have fallen among children and pregnant people since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also troubling are continuing racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination rates, officials said.

Since October 2021, the Georgia Department of Public Health has reported 31 total flu-associated deaths and 543 metro-area hospitalizations. There have also been 39 flu outbreaks in Georgia, three of which were reported the week of Sept. 24 this year.

According to the CDC, during the 2021-2022 flu season, Georgia saw the third-highest number of cases in the country.

The CDC’s projections come shortly after health system and hospital leaders met with national health officials on Sept. 29 to discuss managing COVID-19 this fall.

The last two winters saw “major surges in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths,” they said, which severely strained healthcare workers and hospitals.

Officials at the White House conference said “it does not have to be this way this year if everyone does their part and uses the lifesaving tools we now have, including updated COVID-19 vaccines, flu vaccines and highly-effective treatments for COVID-19.”

The CDC advises flu vaccines be administered by the end of October but the vaccinations can be given any time during flu season, which generally begins when cases start increasing around October, peaks between December and February and can last as late as May. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to be protective.

The CDC is also advising that people can get a flu shot and an updated COVID-19 booster at the same time. The updated booster offers better protection against the currently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.

Emory University epidemiologist Jodie Guest said that one of the reasons there is heightened concern around flu and COVID-19 infections this year is because flu infections were lower in previous years. When more people were masking and social distancing, the spread of respiratory infections was lower.

“That’s what makes getting a flu shot so important,” Guest said.

The Georgia Department of Public Health says that “the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year,” but also recommends frequent hand washing with soap and water, to avoid touching your eyes with dirty hands and sneezing into a tissue or cough into a sleeve instead of your hands.

Most people six months and older can get the vaccine. DPH says that everyone -- especially those at the highest risk of flu-related complications -- should get vaccinated. This includes people 50 years and older, those who live in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, those who have chronic health conditions, people who are pregnant during flu season and children between six months and 18 years old.