Syracuse, N.Y. – Onondaga County has seen the worst outbreak of flu in the state so far this fall just as Covid-19 cases are climbing, and the combination has public health officials worried.
Onondaga County has reported 182 flu cases since the flu season began in early October, far outpacing every other county in the state. A year ago at this point, Onondaga County had seen just eight cases of flu.
“Having over 100 cases of flu already in November is alarming, especially when you look at the rest of the state,” said Chris Morley, chair of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Upstate Medical University. “The main issue that concerns us is that it’s a bellwether for human activity related to viral control, whether it’s Covid-19 or flu.”
The rise in flu, and an increasing number of Covid-19 cases, point in the same direction, Morley said: People are more lax about gatherings and mask wearing than they were a year ago, and both viruses are spreading rapidly.
“The direction of our current COVID-19 numbers and the co-occurrence of a flu outbreak are sort of twin indicators that people are dropping cautionary behavior pretty rapidly,” Morley said.
Onondaga County’s flu rate per 100,000 residents is nearly seven times greater than the state average, according to the state health department’s weekly Flu Tracker website. The main reason is an outbreak at Syracuse University, the state said.
An SU spokesman could not provide any information on the severity of the outbreak. The college will require students to get their flu vaccines before the spring semester starts in January.
Flu fills hospital beds every year, fluctuating in intensity and transmission during the flu season, which runs from early October to mid-May. In the 2019-2020 season, the county confirmed 4,451 cases of flu. The average is about 2,500 cases a year.
Last season, the county saw just 65 cases.
Covid-19 cases have been rising, too. The county confirmed 1,662 cases in the past week, a 54% increase over the first week of November.
Experts say the flu was virtually nonexistent last year because of all the public health measures implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19. Those experts aren’t surprised to see flu, and the common respiratory syncytial virus, come back this year.
“We’re going to see more flu, more RSV and these other respiratory infections that masking and social distancing and washing hands was helping to keep at bay,” said Dr. Stephen Thomas, an infectious disease expert at Upstate.
Despite the restrictions of last winter that helped contain the flu, Covid-19 continued to spread because it is much more contagious than the flu. And that was even before the Covid-19 delta variant, which is two to three times more contagious than the original coronavirus, took over in summer,
A return to mostly normal life means more opportunities for respiratory viruses like the flu to spread again, said Dr. Indu Gupta, Onondaga County health commissioner.
“People are congregating, they are going to concerts, they’re going to games, they’re having parties,” Gupta said. “When the flu season started to kick in, those habits might have been able to spread the virus more easily.”
Gupta urged all county residents who are eligible to get the flu and Covid-19 vaccines.
County Executive Ryan McMahon said Tuesday he doesn’t plan to impose any restrictions such as mask-wearing in public unless Covid-19 numbers get much worse than they are now or hospitals start to get overwhelmed. He said he and Gupta will meet with hospital officials next week to talk about what that threshold might be in light of staffing shortages, the steady transmission of the novel coronavirus, and even the resurgence of the flu.
“That will certainly impact the discussion with the hospitals on what their real capacity is to treat the overall community,” he said.
The flu kills an estimated 35,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 770,000 people have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020.
In Onondaga County, Morley said the numbers of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations climbed after each holiday late last year – Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. He fears a repeat this year if people don’t take precautions, including getting vaccinated, keeping gatherings small and getting tested before visiting.
“Without those things in place,” Morley said, “I’m very concerned about where we’re headed, especially after the holidays.”