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"The flu is making a comeback;" doctors encouraging those feeling sick to stay home, wear a mask

After a mild flu season in 2020-2021, doctors are watching flu cases as we continue to battle the omicron variant

CLEVELAND — Amid the masking, social distancing, canceled events and slower travel in the winter of 2020 into 2021, flu cases were extremely low nationwide. Now, with more events and establishments back up and running, doctors are seeing flu cases begin to creep up again.

“The flu is making a comeback. It’s nowhere near as scary or as widespread as COVID, but it’s still out there and it can cause a lot of damage,” said Dr. David Margolius, division director of Internal Medicine at MetroHealth.

According to data from the CDC, there were just over 4,500 cases of the flu reported from U.S. clinical labs in the week ending December 18, 2021. Two weeks prior, about 2,300 cases were reported.

“Our flu cases are going up, up, up. It’s not going up exponentially, it’s nothing unusual, it’s not like we’re having a crazy flu season,” said Dr. Amy Edwards, pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. “But as we get into flu season, especially on the pediatric side, we start to see kids needing to come into the hospital, usually in January and February is when we start to see that peak in influenza activity, both on the pediatric and adult side.”

In a normal, non-COVID year, the flu can keep hospitals busy in the winter months.

“Every winter all of our local hospitals get overwhelmed with the high number of people with the flu in the hospital,” said Dr. Margolius. “January, February, and sometimes March are especially tough months for us.”

While doctors are not currently seeing anything out of the ordinary with flu activity, they say the potential of a “normal” flu season through the winter could further strain the hospital system.

“Healthcare is not a limitless resource, there are limits to what we can provide,” said Dr. Edwards. “If omicron continues to stretch things to and past capacity, and then we have a normal flu season, that could be really bad.”

“We’re in a really tough situation if more and more get the flu on top of all the people who have COVID right now, it’ll definitely put a huge strain on the system,” said Dr. Margolius.

The Ohio Department of Health has reported 13 flu-associated hospitalizations so far in Northeast Ohio this flu season. Compare that to seven during last year’s flu season, and 2,702 during the 2019-2020 flu season.

Both doctors said the flu and COVID can present similar symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, headaches, and sore throat. If you feel any of these symptoms, it’s best to play it safe.

“If you have any symptoms of a contagious viral respiratory illness, do everybody a favor and stay home and wear a mask until you feel better,” said Dr. Margolius.

Flu season typically ends in early spring, and while the season is currently underway, both doctors said it is not too late to get a flu shot. They also suggested taking precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing to stay safe.

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