As covid raged the past two winters, flu retreated — thanks in large part to widespread social distancing. But the country has largely abandoned those collective measures, setting the stage for flu to mount a major comeback this year. And that could spell trouble for hospital systems worn out from the pandemic.
Worrying signs emerged during the southern hemisphere’s flu season, which is just wrapping up. Cases in Australia started ticking up in April, two months earlier than usual, before peaking in early June as the country’s worst flu season in five years, especially in young children. Some South American countries, including Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, experienced more significant flu seasons than the past several years too, potentially previewing a bad season up north.
There are signs that the United States’ break from influenza may be over. Cases have started rising several weeks earlier compared with the 2021-2022 flu season, with the virus likely exploiting a larger population of immunologically vulnerable people. Children under 3 may be especially at risk, since they likely haven’t been exposed to the virus and childhood vaccination rates have dipped to their lowest rate in eight years during the pandemic.
This year’s flu shots seem reasonably well-matched to the circulating strains, but even in a good year, only about half of Americans get vaccinated. Political polarization around covid shots, and vaccine fatigue, could push that down even further in some areas. Flu vaccination rates dropped several percentage points in states with the lowest covid vaccine uptake in 2021, a recent study found. Federal officials have been urging Americans to get both their covid booster and their flu shots, but if the slow booster rollout is any indication, those efforts may not translate into robust uptake.
That could put hospitals in a bind this winter if the flu returns in full force, especially if covid surges. Healthcare workers have been leaving front-line positions in droves, and many hospitals have struggled to recover. The one-two punch of even an average flu season combined with an uptick in covid could push health systems to the brink yet again. But that’s not a foregone conclusion — especially if the most vulnerable get vaccinated.