Doctors urge vaccinations with SC flu cases at 10-year high heading into holiday season

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Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 7:20 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After cases dropped off during the COVID-19 pandemic, the flu is back with a vengeance in South Carolina.

Officials with the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control report infections are at a 10-year high, up 100 times compared to this point last year, while hospitalizations are 50 times higher.

The spike comes as Americans are getting ready to gather with their loved ones over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“There’s definitely a lot of concern about the amount of flu activity we’re already seeing and what might happen as people start traveling for the holidays,” DHEC Medical Consultant Dr. Jonathan Knoche said.

The flu isn’t the only illness worrying doctors right now either.

At MUSC Children’s Hospital in Charleston, the staff is “drowning” in respiratory illness, according to Dr. Elizabeth Mack.

“Even at this point in the season, we’ve already seen more than what we would see in most seasons for the entirety of the season,” Mack, MUSC’s division chief of pediatric critical care, said.

Alarming surges in pediatric hospitalizations are happening across the country, as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association described in a letter they sent last week to President Joe Biden and US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, urging them to declare a national emergency.

Mack said MUSC is seeing children of all ages hospitalized with flu, COVID, RSV, and other respiratory illnesses, including children with pre-existing conditions and those considered otherwise healthy.

While the RSV shot is only available to children who are considered high-risk, the flu and COVID vaccines are available and recommended to everyone six months and older.

Mack said most of the children hospitalized with the latter two illnesses at her hospital are unvaccinated.

“Prior to this year, I would say the severity and the numbers of children that we were seeing are not what we’re seeing now. In other words, we are seeing sicker kids at higher volumes now,” she said.

Her guidance to get vaccinated is the same as Knoche’s.

“Getting the flu vaccine is the most important thing to provide protection,” he said. “It does take some time for the body to mount its full immunity, but getting it already today before you might travel does provide some level of protection.”

The CDC reports South Carolina is experiencing widespread flu activity, as the agency lists it among four states and the District of Columbia where the illness’ spread is at the highest level the CDC classifies.

Doctors say it is still too early to know if the early flu peak the state is seeing means numbers will also come down earlier, or if it indicates a long winter of prolonged illness.

DHEC said it looks like this year’s flu shot is a good match to provide protection against the flu.

But Knoche added it only works if people get the shot.

“About 50% of people over the age of 65 have received their flu vaccine, but for the younger populations, it’s only around 15%,” Knoche said. “So a lot of young people have a long ways to go to get protection not only for themselves from the flu but also to protect the people around them.”

Public health experts have been warning about a potential “triple-demic” of the flu, RSV, and COVID this winter.

COVID numbers are low in South Carolina right now, but DHEC cautions that the situation is similar to how it looked this time last year before the state experienced a huge surge of the omicron variant in January.

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