Virus season: Health officials expect cases of COVID-19, flu to rise in coming weeks

An exterior view of Columbus Regional Hospital in Columbus, Ind., pictured, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Local health officials say they are anticipating that cases of COVID-19, flu and other respiratory viruses will rise in the coming weeks as people spend more time indoors and gather for the holidays.

The comments were made as local COVID-19 cases and hospitalization have started to trend upwards once again and as the U.S. flu season has gotten off to an unusually fast start, with federal health officials reporting that flu activity is already high in 25 states.

Locally, there were 13 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Columbus Regional Hospital on Wednesday, the hospital said. From Nov. 4 to 17, coronavirus hospitalizations at CRH have ranged from eight to 14.

Five Bartholomew County residents have died from COVID-19 since Oct. 1, raising the total death toll from the virus to 257 since spring 2020, state records show.

At the same time, CRH reported 40 positive flu tests during the first 12 days of November. As of Nov. 5, there had been 1,778 cases of influenza-like illnesses in Indiana, compared to 916 cases at roughly the same point last year, according to the Indiana Department of Health.

As of Nov. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had classified flu activity in Indiana as “moderate.” State health officials have reported one flu death in Indiana so far this season.

“While COVID activity isn’t as high as we were seeing in late August/early September, the cases and hospitalizations are trending upwards again,” said Bartholomew County Health Officer Dr. Brian Niedbalski. “As people are spending more time indoors in larger groups, I expect respiratory viral infections to be on the rise. Influenza is here, and we are expecting activity to increase over the next several months. We are already in a moderate to high flu activity level across the state currently.”

The update from local officials come as the U.S. flu season gets off to a fast start, adding to an autumn mix of viruses that have been filling hospitals and doctor waiting rooms, The Associated Press reported.

The U.S. hospitalization rate for flu hasn’t been this high this early since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, according to the CDC. So far, there have been an estimated 730 flu deaths, including at least two children, according to wire reports.

Earlier this month, several Southern California hospitals started using overflow tents outside emergency rooms to cope with a rising number of patients with flu and other respiratory illness.

Community Montessori school in New Albany, Indiana, had to switch to virtual teaching earlier this month because so many students were out sick with the flu. The school’s 500 students also will go back to wearing masks.

The U.S. flu season usually peaks in December or January.

“We are seeing more cases than we would expect at this time,” the CDC’s Dr. José Romero told The AP.

A busy flu season is not unexpected, according to wire reports. The nation saw two mild seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts have worried that flu might come back strong as a COVID-weary public has moved away from masks and other measures that tamp the spread of respiratory viruses.

But as the holidays approach, local health officials are urging residents to take precautions during Thanksgiving, as well as over the “next several months,” and avoid gatherings if they have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19.

“My advice over the next several months is to avoid gatherings if you have any symptoms suggestive of the flu or COVID,” Niedbalski said. “If you’re sick or running a fever, do a home COVID test or see a physician to get tested for influenza. In addition, don’t send your kids to school or daycare if they are sick. That’s the primary reason these illnesses continue to be spread so easily.”