Flu season hitting older adults hard

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: KOMUnews via Flickr

The headlines say it all: In Houston, “Elderly should avoid the flu at all costs this season;” in Cleveland, “Flu deaths continue to rise;” and in New Orleans, “Flu overwhelming emergency rooms.

This flu season is terrible. Really bad, this Time explainer notes. Unfortunately, it has been the most vulnerable — mostly children, those with serious chronic conditions, and older adults — who are paying the highest price.

CNN reported that this year’s flu had hit people in every state except Hawaii (and District of Columbia), according to the Centers for Disease Control, with more than 60,000 people affected by early January. For older people, 7 percent of deaths by late December were due to flu and pneumonia, which is how CDC tracks this data. Not surprisingly, older adults are the group most often hospitalized due to the virus and its complications. The Chinook (Washington) Times reports that those over age 65 are dying from flu and pneumonia at a rate nearly six times higher than usual.

The Tampa Bay Times prodded readers not to ignore symptoms, especially this year. That’s an important message for Floridians, mainly since one in five residents (19.1 percent) is over age 65, according to Pew Research. From Texas to Toledo, from Colorado to Connecticut, this year’s flu strain has overwhelmed emergency departments, physician offices, and nursing homes. Some hospitals are so swamped that they are treating patients in tents. Meanwhile, nursing homes are doing whatever they can to halt the spread of the virus, or at least minimize its impact, according to one story by WOIO-Cleveland.

Older adults are more likely to catch the virus and are also at higher risk of serious complications because their immune defenses weaken with age. A study in the journal PLOS found that 71 to 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths and 54 to 70 percent of flu-related hospitalizations occurred in those 65 and older over six seasons.

If that is not enough to scare you, Business Insider offered what it described as a “terrifying” animated map where you can watch the virus spread across the nation.

Of course, the underlying message at every age is the same: get vaccinated (it is not too late). Even if the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it offers some protection and if you do get sick, will lessen the severity of symptoms, according to the CDC. As this New York Times headline points out, getting a flu shot is not just about you.

Here are some questions to ask and resources to tap when reporting on this issue:

  • What is the flu situation like in your community?
  • What precautions are hospitals, nursing homes and senior centers taking to help minimize virus exposure or care for older adults?
  • AHCJ’s infectious disease topic leader Bara Vaida wrote this backgrounder about covering seasonal flu.
  • The CDC’s flu tracking and surveillance pages offer real-time tracking data, weekly surveillance reports and a series of modifiable data visualizations, although the Seattle Times noted that the federal government shutdown that began over the weekend had complicated the agency’s ability to update the data.

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