Flu cases, colds up in Western Pa. as people relax covid-19 precautions

Influenza cases now outnumber covid-19 cases in some areas of Western Pennsylvania, though they remain far below pre-pandemic numbers, experts say.

“Over the last couple weeks, there has certainly been a surge in noncovid-related illnesses in the region. Chief among these pathogens has been the yearly influenza virus,” said Dr. Thomas Kessler, a physician at the MedExpress urgent care center on Mosside Boulevard in Monroeville.

As of April 9, Allegheny County had recorded 3,266 cases of influenza since the start of flu season in October, more than 10 times the 305 recorded at this time last year. The latest numbers are still a fraction of the nearly 13,800 cases that were reported during the same timeframe in the 2019-20 flu season.

The numbers week over week, though, have not followed their usual pattern, said Dr. Richard Zimmerman, a University of Pittsburgh professor of family medicine and public health.

Cases of influenza generally tick upward in December and come in two waves: flu A and flu B, usually in that order. So far this season, in both Allegheny County and Pennsylvania as a whole, there have been two peaks and a vast majority of cases have been flu A.

“This has been a surprising year,” Zimmerman said.

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Pennsylvania Department of Health

Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health shows the peaks and valleys of the 2021-2022 influenza season so far. Flu season generally runs from October through May.

In Westmoreland County, there have been 1,571 cases of the flu so far this year. The county recorded 3,670 in all of the 2019-20 flu season.

Zimmerman said the main reason flu A is circulating so widely is the fact that the flu vaccine offered in the fall does not protect against that specific strain.

“It’s kind of hard to ask a vaccine to protect against the virus that’s not in it,” he said. “People think flu is all the same. It’s not.”

He said influenza cases outnumber covid cases across UPMC’s testing sites. That is the case in other health systems as well.

“Obviously, we had the omicron surge toward the end of the year, and that has died off significantly,” said Dr. Kip Jenifer, an emergency physician at AHN Hempfield. “Now, we’ve had — I wouldn’t say a lot — but we’ve had influenza cases.”

Kessler said that while cases remain below pre-pandemic levels, “this increase is a bit unusual for this time of year when the pattern typically demonstrates a steady decline of influenza cases.”

He said April usually marks a turning point for urgent care facilities, when the bulk of visits turn from respiratory illnesses to injuries from warm-weather activities.

“This year, spring showers have instead brought more coughs and colds over the last few weeks,” Kessler said, noting that he also has seen an uptick in stomach bugs.

“No doubt a relaxation of mitigation factors has played a part in that increase,” he said, “and time will tell if additional social interaction during the summer months will continue that pattern.”

Jenifer said cases of the flu are outnumbering cases of covid-19, though they are still not to the level they were pre-pandemic.

“I think that the social distancing, the masking, the washing hands and stuff have kind of cut down on all the influenza cases over the past couple of years as well,” he said.

He said logic would dictate that other illnesses have increased as covid mitigation measures have relaxed and people have let down their guard.

“I can’t say I’m 100% sure about the science and the data behind it, but I suspect that as we do start to loosen up and have less masking, our flu viruses and stuff will start to rise again,” Jenifer said.

“But I think the pandemic may have proven to everybody that frequent hand-washing, keeping your distances, not going to work when you’re sick — these kinds of things may carry over and may actually start to improve our numbers going forward for some of these respiratory illnesses,” he said.

On top of the flu spread, it’s also allergy season.

“I have seen in my center a great deal of seasonal allergy sufferers over the last few weeks,” Kessler said.

He said it’s difficult to say whether this year has been worse than others, but the weather can play a role.

“I can say that the turbulent and wavering weather patterns we have seen in regard to temperature and atmospheric pressure recently can leave individuals more prone to the effects of seasonal allergies,” he said.

He added that allergies can mimic illnesses.

“Allergic rhinitis can lead to some confusion in differentiating a seasonal condition from an upper respiratory illness,” Kessler said. “A history of allergies and the absence of other symptoms such as fever or body aches usually yields the appropriate diagnosis.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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