Flu season doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving, right?
The Covid pandemic caused us to rethink many things, among them when flu season really begins. Dr. George Dempsey, the medical director of East Hampton Family Medicine on Pantigo Road, wrote last week to say he’s already had a handful of patients test positive in the office.
“Alert: Early influenza outbreak,” he texted on Sept. 18.
Dr. Nadia Persheff, a pediatrician in Southampton, said she’s had 20 children test positive in the last two to three weeks, which is “not usual” for this time of year. “Both RSV and flu were off-season” last year as well, she texted.
“Never before last year did we see so many this early,” Dr. Persheff wrote. The East Hampton School District didn’t respond to a query asking if flu activity was up this year.
Both doctors mentioned that flu no longer gets reported to the Suffolk County Department of Health, so the outbreak is occurring quietly, in the background. The county didn’t respond to a request for comment.
New York State, as well, doesn’t begin to update its “flu tracker” website until October. Nationally, the Center for Disease Control keeps track all year. While the “Percentage of visits for ILI” (influenza-like illness) has ticked up in the state last week, it’s still very low and hardly alarming for a Covid-hardened population.
Cort Ruddy, a spokesman with the State Department of Health, said in a statement: “Overall, in the years following the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when influenza activity was unusually low, the Department of Health has observed an increase in the number of influenza cases reported during the off-season, which is June through September. Typical influenza season is October through May. Though more analysis is required, part of the increase is likely due to changes in testing practices in both outpatient and inpatient settings post COVID, and the increase in the number of facilities that utilize multiplex tests, which can simultaneously test for flu, COVID and RSV from a single swab.”
Alphonso Scotti, a physician assistant at Weill Cornell Medicine in Southampton, has yet to see a flu case this season, but said he has seen a “bunch of Covid.” His office uses one test for both ailments. “It’s an all-in-one rapid P.C.R. test in our office. One swab for both tests.” The machine has been in his office and in use since July 2021, testing simultaneously for Covid and influenza. The use of it, and others like it, align with when the off-season flu cases began to surface.
So, do these early flu cases portend a bad season approaching or just more surveillance? It may be tough to answer for sure. Far easier to eat healthy, exercise, and keep washing those hands.