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Why Influenza Is Back On the Sickly Attack in Iowa

Sadly, Influenza is writing Iowa’s worst comeback story of the year.

After lying mostly dormant for the last two seasons, the flu is roaring both across the state and the nation during what has been an alarming and extremely sickly start to the 2023-23 cold and flu season. Arriving earlier than usual, Influenza has already sent over 1,000 Iowans to the hospital as a tripledemic storm front of COVID, RSV and the flu has descended over the state and country. With the U.S. easing social distancing practices and COVID prevention precautions nationwide, the flu has got its sickly groove back.

This year, health officials note, the country “crossed the epidemic threshold” for the flu in early November.

“We are seeing more cases than we would expect at this time,” Jose’ Romero, M.D., director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters in early December.

An Especially Deadly Resurgence

And, most worrisome, more deaths. Influenza claimed the lives of 42 Iowans during the 2021-22 flu season. Unfortunately, the flu, armed with the very contagious Influenza A strain and softening viral defense measures nationwide, is taking an even sicklier and potentially more fatal aim at the Hawkeye State this season.

The flu took only six reported lives during the 2020-21 season thanks to strong social distancing and anti-flu precautions taken by most Iowans during the COVID-19 pandemic (which itself has claimed the lives of over 10,345 Iowans). Influenza claimed 103 Iowa lives during the 2019-20 season.

So far this season (which officially began on October 3, 2022), the state has recorded 13 confirmed deaths through December 10. That doubles the number of state flu fatalities at this time last season. Iowa’s weekly flu reports throughout December showed moderately high levels of activity. Iowa hospitals are reporting high patient admission rates state line to state line.

Schools are also dealing with the troublesome sight of empty desks. The Iowa Respiratory Virus Surveillance Report for December 4-10, 2022 showed that 277 Iowa schools reported student body absence levels of 10% or higher.

The national numbers are even more depressing. Already this season, the CDC’s Preliminary In-Season Flu Burden Estimate projects 18-37 flu illnesses, 8.6-18 million flu medical visits, 190,000-400,000 flu hospitalizations and 12,000-35,000 flu deaths through December 17.

Iowa’s Vaccine Problem

In addition to less stringent anti-flu precautions, the flu’s resurgence in Iowa can be attributed to fewer Iowans receiving the flu shot over the last two years, even though it’s scientifically proven as our best defense against developing severe symptoms from influenza. Last season, 34% of the state’s population – 1,072,588 individuals — were vaccinated against influenza, per the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services. That number was a 5% drop from 2020-21 Iowa vaccinations.

“Getting yourself vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and our family from severe illness, hospitalization and death,” the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services notes. “Iowans should also follow simple practices to keep themselves and their family members healthy during respiratory virus season.”

Health experts note the vaccine won’t completely eliminate our chances of catching the flu, but will help prevent Iowans from falling victim to the viruses’ worst effects.

“Vaccination dramatically decreases illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr. Daniel Fisk, chief medical officer at Hy-Vee, told the Des Moines Register. “It won’t prevent an infection, but it gives your body and immune system a heads up the virus is coming.”

Defend Yourself, Family, Friends and Coworkers

As always, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s regular seasonal flu prevention recommendations remain in place, though this season with even more urgent advisory:

  • Get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19.
  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Clean high-touch surfaces in your home frequently with household disinfectants.
  • Practice hand hygiene frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or hand sanitizer
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or if a tissue is not available, cover them with your upper shirt sleeve, not a hand.
  • Avoid social gatherings if you or your children are ill.
  • Keep children home from daycare or school who have fever, cough, congestion, runny nose or sore throat, and until they are fever-free for 24 hours without medication to reduce fever.

This year’s flu season promises to be a bear to the finish. Still, if all Iowans take these easy and sound anti-flu measures, we can keep the greatest amount of our family, friends, neighbors and fellow Iowans healthy and flu-free.

“Iowans can help reduce the burden on hospitals and health care providers by taking a few simple precautions,” the Iowa HHS’ Sarah Elkstrand stresses.