Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

More people in Allegheny County are being hospitalized for the flu this year

A doctor stands over a patient in a hospital bed.
Robert Ray
Dr. Doug Olson asks patient William Ness, 70, how he is feeling after his wife drove him to the emergency room and he was diagnosed with flu, Monday, Jan. 29, 2018.

Influenza numbers are spiking in Allegheny County much earlier than usual, leaving public health workers to wonder if the region is headed for a particularly rough winter.

Since early October, at least 10 people in Allegheny County have been hospitalized with the flu. That's as many hospitalizations as the last five years combined for the same time period. Though in 2020 and to a lesser extent in 2021, the community saw lower levels of flu and other respiratory illnesses due to COVID-19 precautions.

Both the coronavirus and the flu are respiratory illnesses. Measures such as masking and physical distancing that stop transmission of the former also protect people against the latter.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Do you like science, health and tech stories? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC's medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology, says it's too soon to know whether this season will be particularly severe or that it's simply starting early.

"If you were to compare the number of cases that we have this many weeks into the start of influenza, the shape of the curve itself is not dramatically different than what we would see in many influenza years," said Snyder. "Sometimes we go from not many cases to a whole lot pretty quickly."

In addition to hospitalizations, the Allegheny County Health Department reports the overall number of reported flu cases is way up: there were 4,731 cases as of November 19 of this year. For comparison, at this time in 2021, there were just 259 cases.

Nationally the number of out-patient respiratory illness visits is also on the rise, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dramatic jump might be partly due to more people seeking medical care over concerns they have COVID-19. Symptoms are similar for both illnesses. Cases of RSV, another airborne virus, are also at unusually high levels for this time of year, particularly among small children.

Epidemiologists in the U.S. often look to countries in the southern hemisphere to help predict what kind of flu season might be in store.

"It seemed that in some countries, it peaked and went down pretty quickly. So that could be the scenario here," said county health department epidemiologist Dr. Kristen Mertz. "But by no means do we know exactly what's going to happen."

Though most people recover, nationally thousands die every year from the flu. Therefore, Mertz and Snyder both encourage members of the public to get vaccinated for the flu.

People who get the flu shot are more likely only to experience mild illness if they catch the virus or even skip the flu altogether. They're also less likely to pass the virus on to others, including vulnerable populations: young kids, the elderly, and people with certain health issues, such as chemotherapy patients.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.