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Arizona’s flu season off to a sluggish start

The worst is yet to come, experts say

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In a year when many Arizonans are back to some normalcy, with travel on the rise and holiday gatherings returning, flu season is off to a slow start.

But Valley health experts say we have yet to see the worst of it.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the state has recorded approximately 269 laboratory- confirmed cases of infl uenza. The state also saw fewer cases in 2020 when pandemic restrictions, such as social distancing and mask mandates, were in place.

Jessica Rigler, assistant director overseeing public health preparedness at ADHS, wrote in a Tuesday blog post that the number will likely increase, especially after the holidays.

“A year ago, the precautions so many Arizonans took against COVID-19 — staying indoors, avoiding large groups, and wearing masks — also helped protect against the flu,” she said. “Many Arizonans have returned to their pre-pandemic routines, and we expect flu cases to increase this year.”

Most flu cases in the last five years have been recorded from mid-December through February, she wrote.

ADHS data from those same years shows influenza is expected to hit its peak in Arizona during the first week of January. The five-season average for that week is 1,860 cases. The week of Nov. 21 saw 90 confi rmed cases — the most of any week thus far in 2021.

A typical severe flu season will see about 60,000 influenza- related deaths nationally, with children under the age of 5 and the elderly the most vulnerable targets of the illness.

Already-stressed hospitals, hammered by the high number of COVID-19 cases in the community and a lack of skilled staff, are already seeing flu cases come through their doors. It’s a concern as Phoenix heads into its first cold front this weekend, including for Abrazo Health, which has seen influenza patients consistent with the current statewide trend.

Dr. William Ellert, chief medical officer at Abrazo Health, said in a statement that getting vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu — which can be done simultaneously – is the key to protecting the community.

“When you get a flu shot, you reduce your risk of contracting influenza by 50% to 80%,” he said. “The flu shot gives you a great deal of protection and helps reduce the risk of the particularly dangerous combination of flu plus COVID co-infection, which we unfortunately saw during flu season last year.”

Getting vaccinated will also go a long way to support struggling health care systems and their workers.

“Our doctors, nurses, and front-line health care heroes are working around the clock to care for all patients who come to them for care. Please help us slow the spread. We urge all Arizonans to get the COVID-19 and flu vaccines as soon as possible,” said Ellert.

He also encouraged Arizonans to continue with COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including social distancing, hand washing and staying home when sick, that can also help to stop the spread of the flu.

Dr. Janice Johnston, chief medical officer and co-founder of Redirect Health, based in Scottsdale, said COVID-19 and influenza symptoms are strikingly similar.

“The big thing that probably differentiates COVID from influenza is going to be that lack of sense of taste and smell,” she said. “That seems to be a hallmark one that we do see in COVID. We don’t see that at all in influenza, but overlap symptoms are going to be headaches, fatigue, fever, chills, cough, just general malaise, headaches, those kinds of things are going to overlap.”

Johnston said the flu shot is, as always, effective at preventing severe illness. Even in the thick of flu season, getting immunized is still a wise choice.

“The big thing is just to remind people that we do have a vaccine, and that’s why we do vaccinate for the flu every year,” she said. “It’s quite effective in terms of managing severe disease. A lot of people, the elderly, those with medical conditions, and so on, influenza can be quite serious for them, can lead to hospitalization and death. So, it’s just a good reminder that it’s not too late to get your influenza vaccine.”

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