As COVID-19 keeps sending more Floridians to the hospital, the seasonal flu is catching up to it.
While the number of COVID-positive patients statewide has ballooned by almost 50% over the past month, influenza hospitalizations have more than doubled.
Medical staff across Florida tended to 1,504 COVID patients Friday, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department reported. That’s up from 1,020 on Nov. 9.
Hospital patients with the flu, meanwhile, numbered 469 statewide, an exponential growth from 219 a month ago.
This winter, Florida and the nation are experiencing an oncoming surge of COVID infections caused by strains of the coronavirus’ omicron variant, which first emerged around this time last year.
Influenza has proved more potent this year than last, putting more people in the hospital. For every flu patient across Florida, about three have COVID. That ratio was about 13-to-1 at this time last year.
For all but a handful of days last year, fewer than 100 people were hospitalized with the flu. Scarce flu vaccinations and lack of natural exposure to the virus during the COVID pandemic are to blame for the disease’s newfound potency.
“The flu vaccine uptake this year has been pretty poor,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Larry Bush, former president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society.
“People are reluctant to get vaccines right now,” Bush said, citing possible “vaccine fatigue” among patients he’s seen. “Some people said, ‘I’ve had too many vaccines this year.’”
Some patients have said they don’t think they need a flu shot because they’ve never caught the flu.
“You can say that for any disease,” he said. “You never have it till you have it.”
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Flu vaccines are available at most pharmacies nationwide. Getting them with the latest COVID shots is safe in almost every case, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
Another factor exacerbating the danger of the current influenza strain, Bush said, is people’s lack of natural immunity, ironically caused by measures meant to protect against COVID.
Social distancing, masking and self-isolation helped people avoid the flu. But as people abandon those measures to return to normalcy while skipping out on inoculation, influenza has infected them more easily.
“If there hasn’t been a lot of flu cases in the previous years then people have less immunity just from exposure,” Bush said.
COVID cases up 41% since the first of the month
Meanwhile, COVID infection numbers are spiking once more.
Florida health officials logged more than 18,000 new COVID infections in the past week, the CDC reported Friday. That’s the most since the week ending Sept. 22, and a 41% increase over the week ending Dec. 1.
Omicron subvariants such as the BQ and BF strains are responsible for the latest wave of new infections statewide and nationwide. The latest COVID vaccine, federally approved in late August, is built to fight omicron subvariants that appear to be more similar to the latest omicron strains than to the original virus from Wuhan, China, for which the first shots from 2020 were made.
Cases and hospitalizations may be rising, but not enough yet for the CDC to recommend indoor masking in any Florida county to avoid straining local hospitals.
COVID has infected almost 7.3 million Florida residents. The CDC as of Friday reports Florida’s latest COVID death toll at 83,195. But that’s six people fewer than what the state Health Department said Dec. 2 in its biweekly pandemic report.
Florida’s COVID vaccination rate continues to lag behind the national average. Just 9% of state residents have gotten the latest shots, the CDC reported this week, compared with 13.5% of people nationwide.
And only 24% of Floridians ages 65 and older have gotten those updated vaccines, tied with Georgia for the fifth-worst state in the nation.
About 34% of seniors nationwide are up to date on their COVID shots.
The shots remain free of charge for most people seeking them until next year, when federal funding is set to run out, the Biden Administration has warned. Most pharmacies offer them. Insured people who walk in to get them can get inoculated then and there.