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Flu cases are rising quickly in the St. Louis region

Public health officials say even healthy people should receive a flu vaccine to protect the greater population.
File photo / Mary Delach Leonard
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St. Louis Public Radio

In the last weeks of November, cases of influenza in St. Louis County more than doubled. The county Department of Public Health published a graph of the percent of influenza-like-illnesses in emergency hospital visits — it’s a red line shooting almost straight up.

“Flu cases have significantly increased compared to previous years,” said Dr. Kanika Cunningham, Public Health Officer for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. “It is the same trend that we're seeing across the United States right now.”

The same is true in the city of St. Louis; in the last five years, the city reported only a handful of cases in its weekly counts at the end of November. This year, in the week ending Nov. 26, the city reported 600 cases, almost double the numbers from just a week earlier.

Both Illinois and Missouri are seeing “very high” levels of influenza according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across the country, only a handful of states are reporting low to moderate flu levels.

“That's happened rapidly and we are seeing that not only in the data but also in the real world in our emergency departments,” said Dr. Ann Elizabeth Mohart, Chief Medical Officer for Mercy Hospital in Washington, Mo. and an emergency medicine physician.

The increase in flu is coming on top of high transmission levels of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases. That can be difficult for hospitals to handle, but so far Mohart says the system is holding steady.

“Because our healthcare system is a regional network of hospitals, and patients are transferred throughout that region based on what their level of need is, if they need a higher level of care or a dedicated facility, when every single facility is filled up, it becomes really much more difficult to do that,” Mohart said. “So it requires a much higher level of planning and cooperation among the whole entire health care system.”

To prevent the spread of flu, doctors say the same tactics that worked to prevent COVID-19 are recommended now. People who are sick or have been exposed to a virus should stay home. If you haven’t already, you should get vaccinated, and Cunningham says the types of influenza that are dominant in St. Louis right now are covered by this year’s flu vaccine. Both Mohart and Cunningham recommend wearing a mask while indoors or in crowds.

“This is one place where every single one of us has the ability to help and protect our fellow citizens,” Mohart said. “And a lot of that just comes down to responsible behavior.”

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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