Nasty flu strain spreads faster, sickening many children and adults

Long wait times up to 8 hours reported at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospitals

This year’s flu season ramped up early in Georgia and continues to intensify, especially among children, pushing the area’s pediatric hospitals to their limits. An overwhelming number of the sick children have not been fully immunized.

At Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, soaring numbers of very sick young patients are filling emergency rooms and intensive-care units.

On Monday, emergency room wait times were reported on the hospital system’s website at more than three hours at all Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospitals. Hospital system officials said wait times have exceeded a whopping eight hours on some recent days.

In Georgia, 83% of pediatric ICU beds are occupied, according to the most recent federal data. That’s a sharp rise from April when it was just under 60%.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reports a steep increase in the number of patient visits to doctors for flu or flu-like illness during the week ending Oct. 29 to an estimated 8.6%, up from 6% from the previous week. There were 169 people in metro Atlanta hospitalized with influenza during the same week and so far this season two adults have died as a result of the flu in Georgia, according to DPH.

There have been no pediatric deaths so far this season in Georgia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Southeast is being hit by a particularly nasty flu strain that is often associated with severe illness and hospitalization. This dominant strain is a subtype of the influenza A virus — known by the scientific name of H3N2 — which can be especially hard on children and older adults.

The vast majority of children hospitalized in the intensive care unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are for respiratory viruses, according to a spokesperson. Flu-related hospitalizations are the driving force behind the current onslaught.

The respiratory illness RSV, which had surged in infants and young children in August, September, and October, has been slowing down in recent weeks, officials said. The number of children hospitalized for COVID-19 at Children’s is a distant third.

Dr. Andi Shane, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University, said 95% of the children hospitalized in the intensive care unit for the flu at Children’s have not been vaccinated or in some cases, are only partially vaccinated. (Children ages 6 months through 8 years old who’ve either never received a flu shot or who’ve only ever had a single flu shot should get two this year, a month apart, for maximum protection).

“We along with children’s hospitals in the southeastern U.S. and throughout the U.S. are facing daily challenges related to capacity,” Shane said in an e-mail. “Both available beds and staff to care for children are ongoing challenges that we are all facing. The needs are greatest for critical care beds and staff as well as Emergency Department beds and staff.”

She urged parents to take steps to prevent the spread of illnesses.

“We are requesting the help of parents and families to do everything that is possible to prevent illness – get vaccinated, wash hands, and stay home when sick,” she said.

Flu cases are also rising among adults. Dr. Andrew Reisman, a Gainesville doctor and former president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said he’s seeing an unusually high volume of patients sick with the flu —especially this early in the season. He is not aware of any of the adult patients needing to be hospitalized but described the illness among some of his patients as “pretty bad,” with symptoms including high fevers, and muscle and body aches.

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot every year by the end of October, though the agency stresses getting the vaccine later is better than not getting it at all. A flu vaccine can prevent infection, and among those who still become sick with flu, vaccination can reduce the severity of the illness.

“We are very busy. Our office is full,” said Dr. Hugo Scornik, a local pediatrician and former president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This is looking like we are in for a severe flu season. All children 6 months and up need to get their flu shot right away.”

Flu vaccine uptake is low this year even as the country experiences a resurgence of respiratory viruses. So far this season, CDC data show flu vaccine coverage among children at 24.8%, comparable to the vaccine rates at the same time last year of 25.2%. Flu vaccine coverage is also low among adults, estimated at 21.2%.

Flu vaccines are updated every year based on what experts learn from previous seasons and influenza patterns in other parts of the world.

This season, the seasonal flu shot protects against four types of influenza virus, according to the CDC: the influenza A subtypes H1N1 and H3N2, and the influenza B Victoria and Yamagata lineages, which refer to branches of the influenza family tree.

Influenza A(H3N2) viruses present the biggest challenge to the makers of the annual flu shot, mostly because the viruses mutate the fastest. Experts maintain a flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu, and even if you ultimately do get the flu, the vaccine can reduce the severity of the illness.