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Fatigue from the COVID-19 pandemic may be driving the flu surge this year

woman with a flu
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woman with a flu

Health officials are pleading with the public to take the flu more seriously. This message comes amid a significant increase in flu and RSV cases nationwide and locally.

In just one week, flu and RSV cases more than doubled in Monroe County, from 248 to 609.

“We've gotten away from things that tend to be protective against the flu like masking and social distancing,” said Dr. Kathleen Robischon, a senior medical director at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Robischon added that fewer people are getting the flu vaccine than in previous years. She said this may be a sign of vaccine fatigue.

“People are getting their COVID vaccines and may have some hesitancy to get any additional vaccines,” Robischon said.

An increase in cases often results in an increase in hospitalizations and even death, particularly among the most vulnerable like the elderly, people in nursing homes, pregnant women, and those with underlying health conditions.

“We worry about things like pneumonia. Many people get hospitalized with pneumonia, because it becomes a much more serious condition,” she said.

The most recent reports out of Monroe County show more RSV related hospitalizations than flu. From October 1 to November 5 the county confirmed 238 hospitalizations due to RSV. Roughly half of those patients are 2 years old or younger.

“There is no question it is one heck of a RSV season for these kids,” said Dr. Edward Walsh, epidemiologist at University of Rochester Medical Center. He said it’s unusual to see so many cases of RSV within a given season. He said this is more than likely a result of the disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic caused.

“It may be because of the lack of virus activity for two years, leaving people less immune having not seen the virus,” Walsh said. He added that the number of adult cases is also unusual for this type of respiratory virus. He believes this is partially the consequence of kids contracting the virus in school and bringing it home to their parents.

Two people have died from RSV in Monroe County according to preliminary county reports. Those individuals were between the ages of 65 to 84.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.