Flu killed more Americans last season than car crashes and drug overdoses. But Chicagoans can protect themselves
Last flu season was the most deadly in years and Chicago public health advocates are urging residents to get vaccinated.
More than 80,000 people died from the flu last season in the United States, according to early estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it’s far lower than the almost 700,000 people who died in the U.S. during the so-called Spanish flu pandemic that hit worldwide 100 years ago, last season was a “record-breaking” death toll, the highest since at least the late 1970s, according to the CDC.
The flu deaths last season were nearly 10,000 higher than the estimated number who died from drug overdoses and almost double the number of those estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes. An estimated 900,000 plus were hospitalized, the public health agency said. In Illinois, more than 2,300 were admitted to intensive care units for flu-related illness.
Chicago was not spared. Between October and May, more than 580 were admitted to ICUs for flu-related illness. That’s more than double the previous season, during which 275 were admitted. The flu killed more than twice as many people in Chicago during the 2017-18 season as the season before, with 38 of those admitted to intensive care dying in Chicago, versus 17 the year before.
Area emergency rooms, including Stroger Hospital’s, were inundated with sick patients. A little fewer than 700 visited Stroger with flu-like illness last season, more than three times the number who went there the year before.
A sizable portion of the patients who went to Stroger’s emergency room with flu-like symptoms were not those doctors would expect to see, said Dr. Jenny Lu, an emergency physician at the West Side hospital.
Generally, the very old, the very young or those with major medical problems like diabetes, heart disease or immune conditions would make up the overwhelming portion of those severely ill with flu. But last season was different, Lu said.
The patients who came through were not elderly, and often were quite healthy otherwise — “People you wouldn’t think would have the flu,” she said.
It’s too early to say how bad this flu season is going to be — the CDC won’t even start tracking flu cases for the season until later this month — but it’s better to take precautions as soon as possible, experts say.
Although many might balk at getting a flu shot — more than 60 percent of adults in Chicago did not get one by November last year, according to the Chicago health department — getting it sooner may prevent serious illness, hospitalization or death.
“Only 29 percent of those hospitalized in ICUs received a flu shot,” said Dr. Marielle Fricchione, medical director of the city’s immunizations program. “About 18 percent of those who died received a flu shot.”
Children especially can be helped by the flu vaccine. Last season, 172 children died from flu-related illnesses in the United States — a record for a flu season, according to the CDC. About 80 percent of those who died had not received a shot. Nine children in Illinois died.
The vaccine, available now, may make the flu less severe if someone does catch it. That may be the difference between a weeklong stay in intensive care and a few days spent in bed with aches and sniffles. The needle-fearing don’t have an excuse either — after advising the public to avoid the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine for the last two years, the CDC has given it the green light this season.
“Now is a good time to get it,” said Lu. “There are a lot of places the general public can go to get vaccinated.”
This may be the ideal time to get the vaccine, Lu and other experts say, as it takes two weeks to become fully effective.
Immunity from flu is expected to last through January for those who get vaccinated now, Fricchione said.
The number of those who died of flu or related complications last season is small in comparison to the number who died during 1918’s global flu pandemic, which left an estimated 675,000 Americans dead.
Again, Chicago was not spared; in a period of just over 30 hours in early October 1918, close to 800 new cases of flu were reported.
“The records of deaths were more startling,” said an Oct. 4, 1918, report in the Chicago Daily Tribune. “Seventy-six deaths were ascribed to influenza and forty-three to pneumonia during the thirty hour period.”
There was no flu shot then, and city health officials appeared to struggle with how to contain the contagion. “Virtual quarantine” was declared, with each sick citizen “commanded to go to his home and stay there,” announced the city health department. No visitors were to be allowed.
Days later, another report notes, the city health commissioner asked the police chief to order the arrest of “all persistent coughers and sneezers who fail to cover their faces with handkerchiefs.”
Schools were also briefly closed. Even theater managers made announcements before shows, asking the owners of “persistent coughs” to exit. Church pastors did the same before their services.
A century later, public health experts have simpler advice, made easier by the development of the flu vaccine.
“If you want to protect those in our communities who are most at risk of getting sick, get a flu shot,” said Fricchione.