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New statewide COVID-19 forecast raises concern about flu

Drawing from global trends, OHSU forecasts potential for vigorous return of influenza after two-year dip
Person injection another person in the left arm with a vaccination.
Flu vaccinations are just as important this season as COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, according to health experts at Oregon Health & Science University. (Getty Images)

A vigorous return of influenza may outpace COVID-19 in driving hospitalizations in Oregon over the fall and winter, according to the latest statewide biweekly forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.

The latest forecast continues to show a steady decline in the number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in Oregon. A total of 253 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sept. 14, with the OHSU forecast projecting the number continuing to decline through the end of October, until picking up again in November as immunity wanes and people increasingly gather indoors.

The new forecast raises a more pressing concern about influenza — a virus that has been all but absent for the past two and a half years.

Peter Graven, Ph.D. (OHSU) stands near a brick wall.
Peter Graven, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“Your flu vaccine is extremely important this year — and certainly more than it has been in the last two years when we had virtually no flu that was circulating,” said Peter Graven, Ph.D., director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics. “The flu is probably going to be at least as important this year as COVID.”

Graven cites relatively high rates of influenza starting early in some areas of the Southern Hemisphere, where influenza typically circulates in their winter months, from April to October.

Dawn Nolt, M.D. (OHSU) stands against a beige background.
Dawn Nolt, M.D. (OHSU)

The public’s willingness to wear masks, limit indoor gatherings and take other public health measures limited the spread of COVID-19 over the past two and a half years, said Dawn Nolt, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine.

All of those public health measures also minimized the circulation of flu.

However, Nolt said the lack of exposure to influenza over the past two years also means that the immune system lacks practice in fighting off the influenza virus. This, in turn, portends a potentially vigorous flu season when the virus begins circulating this fall and winter.

“In normal years, lots of people are exposed to the flu, which provides a natural boost to their immune response,” she said. “We haven’t seen much flu at all in the past three years. That makes it really important to get yourself vaccinated against flu this season.”

Flu vaccines are widely available at pharmacies and health care systems across the region.

In addition to the availability of the flu vaccine, the new bivalent booster vaccine against COVID-19 arrived in Oregon last week, targeting the BA.4 and BA.5 variants along with the original strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The current number of COVID-19 cases is far below the 1,178 people hospitalized with COVID-19 during the peak of the delta wave on Sept. 1, 2021.

Nolt encourages people to get both the COVID-19 booster and annual flu shot as soon as they’re eligible and the shots are available. Click here to search for pharmacies providing the COVID-19 booster; most locations also provide the flu shot.

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