Flu deaths surge after pandemic lull

By: - May 11, 2023 2:31 pm

A bottle of influenza vaccine at a CVS pharmacy and MinuteClinic on September 10, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Washington just had its deadliest flu season in five years, the Department of Health said Thursday. 

Following two years of low flu activity – likely due to reduced exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic – the state saw a “tenfold” increase in deaths this year compared to last. For the 2022-2023 season, 262 Washington residents died from influenza, including five children. Last year, only 26 people died from the flu. 

The uptick follows national trends, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating as many as 57,000 flu deaths this season, compared to 5,000 deaths last year. 

Outbreaks at Washington’s long-term care facilities also increased significantly, with 138 outbreaks reported this year, compared to 16 last year.

Many precautions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as masking and social distancing, likely led to the low flu numbers in the past two years, Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said in a news release. Now that those measures are lifted and the COVID-19 public health emergency comes to an end, health officials say the flu will likely spread faster. 

Precautions, such as getting a yearly flu vaccine, washing their hands, staying at home if sick and wearing masks in crowded spaces, can all help slow the spread, according to the department.

“The flu vaccine is your best protection against this serious disease,” Shah said. “Even if you get the flu, if you’ve been vaccinated, typically your illness is milder, and you aren’t as likely to need to go to the hospital.”

According to the CDC, the flu vaccine reduced hospitalization by nearly three quarters for children and by nearly half for adults. Still, flu vaccinations are down nationally compared to pre-pandemic rates, especially among pregnant people and children, who are some of the most vulnerable to severe flu disease. 

In Washington, flu activity peaked in November, but it is currently at minimal levels, as of last month.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.