Bartholomew County health officials are concerned that the flu could come roaring back this winter after plummeting to low levels last year, further straining a local health care system that already has had its hands full with COVID-19.
Last year, flu cases dropped to historically low levels in much of the United States, including in Bartholomew County, which saw “very low levels” compared to before the pandemic, local health officials said.
“Flu levels were very low last year due to the multiple mitigation measures we had in place,” said Bartholomew County Health Officer Dr. Brian Niedbalski. “Unfortunately, as those measures are relaxed and not being followed as vigilantly, there is a concern for high levels of influenza and other respiratory viruses as we approach the colder months.”
Health experts have attributed the decline in flu last year to measures aimed at combating COVID-19, including masking and social distancing, which had a side benefit of protecting against influenza and other illnesses.
But as soon as masks started to come off earlier this year, the U.S. experienced an unusual summer surge of children hospitalized with a different virus, named RSV, that usually strikes in the winter, The Associated Press reported.
Some experts have said that’s a worrying sign of what to expect if flu returns, particularly with schools and businesses reopened, international travel resuming and far less appetite for COVID-19 restrictions, according to wire reports.
Each year, hundreds of people in Indiana become sick from influenza, and some cases prove fatal, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
Influenza killed seven people in Indiana during this past flu season, down from 137 the season before. Last week, state health officials reported the first flu-related death of this season.
Currently, local flu activity is “sporadic at best,” though flu season doesn’t usually peak until late December through February, Niedbalski said. But local health officials are already bracing for dueling outbreaks of flu and COVID-19.
“If we see a large amount of flu cases this winter superimposed on expected COVID activity, then our hospital systems may become overwhelmed once again,” Niedbalski said.
A widely cited model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that Indiana will experience another wave of COVID-19 toward as colder weather sets in.
This year and last year, Bartholomew County saw an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at about the same point in the summer.
But last year, hospitalizations at CRH quickly dipped back down into the single digits in early fall — with one person hospitalized on Sept. 14, 2020 — before the winter surge hit.
This year, hospitalizations have plateaued at much higher levels and have yet to return to the single digits. As of Sunday, there were 25 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at CRH — four times as many as the same day a year ago.
One particular concern that hospital officials have is: What happens if there is no dip?
“We’re concerned that we’re not going to see the dip,” CRH spokeswoman Kelsey DeClue said in a previous interview.
But only time will tell if history repeats itself this winter.
For now, local health officials are urging people to get their flu and COVID-19 shots.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone 6 months or older gets a flu shot by the end of October. COVID-19 vaccines are widely available and have been authorized or approved by federal health regulators for anyone age 16 and up.
Both vaccines are available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and local health departments. Most people with health insurance can get both with no co-pay.
It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body, so the CDC recommends early vaccination. However, the flu vaccine can be administered at any time during the season, which typically runs from October through May.
“To help reduce their chances of getting the flu, people should continue to follow good hygiene habits like washing hands, using hand sanitizer and covering coughs and sneezes,” Niedbalski said. “Wearing masks is still important in public if you are sick or if you are in a crowded indoor space. Flu vaccinations are another important tool as they are proven to reduce disease and serious cases of influenza.”