An estimated 900 people have died from flu-related illnesses so far over the last four weeks, indicating the earliest start to the flu season in the U.S. in 15 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On top of the 900 deaths, CDC officials estimate that there have already been 1.7 million flu illnesses and 16,000 hospitalizations. The last time the flu season started this early was in 2003-2004. Some experts believe it may be a sign of a rough season ahead and officials say the current illnesses are being driven by a virus that doesn’t show up until March or April.
“It really depends on what viruses are circulating. There’s not a predictable trend as far as if it’s early it’s going to be more severe, or later, less severe,” Scott Epperson, who tracks flu-like illnesses for the CDC told CNBC.
Epperson said the current virus making people in most parts of the country ill isn’t dangerous to older adults but can be hard on children and people younger than 50.
Dr. Toni Gross, chief of emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, told CNBC that the hospital has already treated more flu cases this fall than it saw all of last winter.
“It is definitely causing symptoms that will put you in bed for a week,” Gross explained, noting that these include fever, vomiting and diarrhea. She noted, however, that they luckily they have not had any deaths.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said Monday that the state received three reports of flu-related deaths so far this season, KMBC News reported.
Doctors in the Midwestern state have already seen more than 1,500 cases of the flu this season and are urging residents to get the flu vaccine.
“For those who haven’t already been vaccinated, it is important to know that it’s not too late,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said. “We are approaching the peak of flu season, so now is still a great time to protect yourself and others around you by being vaccinated.”
In Pennsylvania, officials reported five deaths so far from flu-related illnesses.
The CDC reported widespread flu activity in 16 states: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Regional activity was noted in Puerto Rico and 14 states namely: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Local flu activity was also noted in: Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.
Sporadic activity was noted in the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kansas, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.
While the early start of the flu season has come as a surprise to health officials, researchers at Emory University, Ball State University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham suggested it could be due to America’s 50-year low unemployment rate, which currently sits at 3.5%.
A recent study cited by Newsday noted that higher employment correlates with increased rates of flu transmission in the United States.
The study, published in the August volume of Economics & Human Biology, found that a one percentage point increase in the employment rate correlated with a 16% increase in the number of influenza-related doctor visits. This trend was strongest in the retail and health care sectors, where interpersonal contact is most frequent.
"I guess it's the one downside of less unemployment," Dr. Daniel Griffin, a partner at Lake Success-based ProHEALTH Care told Newsday. "The more contact you have with people, the better chance you have of getting the flu, or any other winter virus.”