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Public health officials wonder if Allegheny County is headed for a late-season flu surge

Lewis Joly
Flu vaccine

It’s possible that the worst of the current flu season is behind Allegheny County. But there’s still time for a second surge.

The numbers of hospitalizations and deaths are roughly the same as what were observed at this time in early 2020 before COVID-19 was found in Pennsylvania. But this comes after an early-season surge: Cases started to ramp up in late October before spiking between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“The shape of the influenza curve this year is not too unusual [though] the time is earlier than we expected,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, who oversees infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC. “Now, there is a big unknown this year, and that is what’s going to happen the rest of the season.”

During years that the flu spikes twice, Snyder notes a different strain usually causes the second surge: “I don’t know if we’ll see that this year, because the strains that usually cause the second spike are what predominated with the first spike.”

Like Snyder, the Allegheny County Health Department’s Dr. Kristen Mertz, a medical epidemiologist, is waiting to see if there is a second surge. If that does occur, she says the region is prepared and has access to enough oseltamivir, or Tamiflu – i.e., the antiviral for influenza.

“They’ve released some oseltamivir from the national stockpile, so that the state health department does have some in stock,” said Mertz. “If we do see another surge and run into problems with medication supplies, there is extra.”

Both Mertz and Snyder urge people who have yet to do so to get the flu shot.

So far, five Allegheny County residents have died from the flu; another 54 have been hospitalized.

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.