Flu spread in Georgia is low, for now

Published 9:00 am Thursday, December 31, 2020

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Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, health professionals are seeing the regular influenza virus circulate in low numbers in Troup County and the surrounding areas.

Hayla Folden, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health District 4, said DPH was not seeing flu spread as much as COVID-19.

“The numbers are not there, but it’s still early in the flu season,” Folden said.

The Georgia Department of Public Health’s data on the flu is not as extensive as its data on COVID-19. Based on DPH data, however, there have been 14 hospitalizations due to the flu in the 8-county Atlanta metro area since Sept. 27. There have been no flu-associated deaths and no outbreaks in Georgia, according to the data. DPH does not track the number of flu-associated hospitalizations statewide.

The influenza-like illness (ILI) activity indicator is a DPH data tool used to measure weekly ILI activity based on the percent of ILI outpatient visits in Georgia compared to the 3-year average of ILI visits during weeks with little or no influenza circulation.

The ILI indicator was at 1 out of 10, “minimal activity level,” for the first seven weeks of flu season, starting in late September. It then rose to 2 out of 10 for three weeks and is now at 3 out of 10, a category still considered “low.”

The flu season has “probably not reached its peak,” Folden said.

The percentage of visits for ILI reported by the outpatient ILI Surveillance Network has remained under 3 percent statewide this flu season, below the regional baseline of 3.1 percent. The percentage of visits related to flu is relatively modest compared to last season — at this point last year it was above 8 percent and reached higher than 12 percent. It did not return to under 3 percent until week 17 of 2020.

The 2017-18 flu season saw an even more dramatic peak at more than 15 percent of visits.

In the 2019-2020 flu season, visits peaked around the end of 2019 before declining and peaking again in week 13 of 2020.

“I have not seen much flu,” said Dr. Kenneth Horlander, a pulmonologist with Emory of LaGrange who also works in the intensive care unit at Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center. “We’re thinking the peak is coming later, which sometimes happens. Sometimes you get two peaks. It’s kind of an unknown.”

Folden and Horlander both said that COVID-19 precautions like washing hands, wearing a mask and staying six feet away from others can help prevent flu spread, too.

Flu is “caught the same way – droplets in the air or from coughing and sneezing or on surfaces,” Horlander said. “If your hand hygiene is good and you’re wearing a mask and you’re avoiding close contact, you should avoid the flu as well as the coronavirus.”

DPH does not have access to data about how many people in Georgia received a flu shot this year. Anecdotally, Horlander said more people in his clinic have been willing to receive a shot this year.

COVID-19 precautions could account for the lack of a flu surge in Georgia. But Folden said the flipside could be true.

“If COVID is spreading as fast as it is, then people are probably not abiding by those basics,” Folden said.

A major flu spike could come soon if people flout precautions, then.

Folden said she has heard of people in District 4 testing positive for both COVID-19 and the flu. Hornalder hasn’t had any such patients, but did see a patient who had COVID-19 and recovered later only to contract the flu, landing them in the ICU.

A spike in flu cases would further strain the medical infrastructure in Troup County. Horlander said he is currently seeing “huge numbers with coronavirus at the hospital.”

“We need it to not be a bad flu season,” he said.