Amid worst flu season in decades, health officials urge return to masking

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York County, along with much of the country, is in the midst of its worst flu season in decades.

The combination of widespread flu infections, increasing COVID hospitalizations and the lingering presence of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV — the so-called tripledemic — led many health officials to call for a return to widespread masking this week.

Dr. Raghav Tirupathi, a WellSpan infectious disease specialist, said masking is one of the most effective interventions someone can use against all three respiratory diseases.

"I agree with the recent push to encourage at least indoor masking and masking in crowded areas to decrease transmission," Tirupathi said. "This doesn’t take away the fact that folks need to be up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines/boosters and flu vaccination, as well."

As of Thursday, state data showed that York County had added 1,390 cases of influenza, bringing its total to 3,781. Across the state, flu numbers have skyrocketed to over 74,000 cases so far this season.

York County, and Pennsylvania as a whole, continue to see exponential growth in seasonal flu cases.

That's far above the weekly number of cases reported in a normal flu season — and it has come a lot earlier, too. For comparison, the 2017-18 flu season was Pennsylvania's worst in the last decade, peaking at roughly 14,000 cases reported in a single week in early February. Last week, Pennsylvania logged nearly 24,000 new influenza cases — some three months before the typical season peak.

"The annual late fall arrival of influenza, in particular influenza A, is definitely in full swing," said Dr. Matt Howie, York City's health director.

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COVID is also on the rise again, with York County reporting 729 new cases and one death, bringing its pandemic totals to 140,370 cases and 1,612 deaths. Local hospitals reported having 41 COVID-19 patients — eight more than last week. Eight of those patients were in the ICU and three were on ventilators.

Health officials had anticipated a post-Thanksgiving surge, with several hospital systems adjusting staffing levels in anticipation. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a further step, encouraging the public to again take up masking.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks to the press at a mass vaccination site in March in Boston. (Erin Clark/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

There are no mask mandates, but CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the public shouldn't wait for a directive to start masking to protect themselves from COVID, flu and other respiratory illnesses.

“One need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on,” Walensky said, according to CNBC. “We would encourage all of those preventive measures — hand washing, staying home when you’re sick, masking, increased ventilation — during respiratory virus season, but especially in areas of high COVID-19 community levels.”

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Nationwide, more people tested positive for the flu last week than at any point on record, going back as far as 1997, according to Vox.

Walensky also said the CDC was considering updating its community levels metric, which measures COVID-19 numbers in counties, to include other diseases like the flu.

 City of York Medical Director Dr. Matt Howie speaks at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. The recent uptick in positive COVID-19 testing, specifically at York County Prison, was addressed. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Howie said the county's hospitals are keeping up with the demand so far but encouraged people to do what they can to avoid straining that system.

"Prevention is still our best path forward — limit large group gatherings in tight spaces, wear a mask if you are in close quarters and stay home if you are feeling unwell," he said. "Please remember to get a booster when you are recommended to — at least every six months."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.