Erie County is dealing with a viral outbreak, but it’s not COVID-19.
Influenza cases have increased recently in the county, with nearly 200 cases reported each of the last two weeks. In fact, confirmed influenza cases nearly doubled COVID-19 cases in that period, according to the Erie County Department of Health.
It is a significant change from the 2020-21 flu season, where a record low 14 cases of flu were reported when people stayed at home or wore face masks to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not a surprise, given that people take off their masks and gather in groups,” said Charlotte Berringer, RN, director of local health services for the county’s health department. “We know that masking helps reduce the spread of influenza as well as COVID-19.”
Erie County’s annual number of flu cases:
- 2021-22 – 1,539 (through April 16)
- 2020-21 – 14
- 2019-20 – 4,566 *
- 2018-19 – 2,403
- 2017-18 – 3,859
- 2016-17 – 2,110
- 2015-16 – 751
- 2014-15 – 1,176
- 2013-14 – 700
- 2012-13 – 1,187
- 2011-12 – 55
* This total, which is the highest number of flu cases ever reported in Erie County, was recently updated by the Erie County Department of Health.
An annual increase in influenza cases is not unusual. Erie County reports similar increases almost every flu season.
But this influenza rise is a little different. Relatively few people are hospitalized due to flu, and no deaths due to flu complications have been reported in the county so far this season, according to the county health ministry.
Erie County’s annual percentage of flu cases requiring hospitalization:
- 2021-22 influenza season – 3.3% (51 out of 1,539 cases up to and including 16 April)
- 2020-21 – not available (only 14 cases of influenza reported)
- 2019-20 – 4.4%
- 2018-19 – 6.2%
- 2017-18 – 9.5%
- 2016-17 – 10.4%
“I think the low percentage (of flu hospitalizations) may be due to people with mild illness, who would normally stay home and not being tested for the flu, going to their doctor and getting tested because they think they maybe have COVID, “said Nancy Weissbach, MD, a specialist in infectious diseases at Saint Vincent Hospital.
Saint Vincent and other physicians offer a triple test for influenza, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus.
Another possible reason for the low number of admissions is that relatively few cases of influenza have been in older people, who are more likely to suffer from complications. About 61% of the county’s cases have been people 18 years and younger, while 7% have been 65 years and older, Berringer said.
“We have only had 30 patients in the hospital with the flu since January 1, and only three of them needed intensive care,” Weissbach said. “Ages on our flu patients have been spread, from 20-year-olds to 89-year-olds.”
Weissbach recommends being tested if you think you may have the flu or COVID-19. Treatments are now available for each virus, but they should be given within 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.
Influenza vaccines may still be available at doctor’s offices. It takes a person about two weeks to develop immunity to the vaccine, Berringer said.
However, this season’s vaccine has not been very effective in preventing the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Its efficiency is 16% compared to the usual 40% to 60%.