After flu outbreak at U of M, health officials plead with public to get vaccinated

By: - November 17, 2021 1:58 pm

The University of Michigan Quad, Sept. 20, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

Following a massive flu outbreak at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus — the school reported 511 cases there in the past two weeks — state health officials are urging Michiganders to get the influenza vaccine and continue to wear face masks. 

“As we head into respiratory virus season, it is important to take every mitigation measure we can to prevent outbreaks of the flu, RSV [Respiratory Syncytial Virus] and COVID-19,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive, said in a press release issued Wednesday.

Getting your flu shot

To locate a health department, physician’s office or pharmacy offering flu and COVID-19 vaccines, click here to visit the federal “vaccine finder.”

“Wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and getting vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19 will help prevent the spread of illness,” Bagdasarian continued. “COVID-19 vaccines and flu vaccines can be administered at the same time, and we encourage all eligible Michiganders to get theirs as soon as possible.”

Individuals who have not been vaccinated against the flu made up about 77% of the 528 influenza cases diagnosed at U of M’s Ann Arbor campus since Oct. 6, the school reported Monday. The university’s surge in flu cases is alarming health experts, who noted that influenza nearly disappeared last year, in large part because of COVID-19 measures like mask requirements and social distancing.

“We’d seen almost no cases of RSV or other respiratory viruses with the mask mandates,” said Dr. Matthew Sims, who leads infectious diseases research at Beaumont Health, Royal Oak. 

“Last year, we really didn’t have [flu cases],” Sims said. “Why didn’t we have it? Because we had mask mandates.”

In the wake of the outbreak at the University of Michigan, the school is partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Washtenaw County Health Department and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to study the spread of the influenza at the onset of this year’s flu season, which typically peaks between December and February.

“Partnering with the CDC will accelerate our understanding of how this flu season may unfold regionally and nationally in the setting of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lindsey Mortenson, the medical director and acting executive director at the University of Michigan’s University Health Service.

While it’s not unusual to see the emergence of flu cases around this time of year, “the size of this outbreak is unusual,” Juan Luis Marquez, medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department, said in a statement released by the University of Michigan on Monday. 

The University of Michigan reopened for in-person learning for the fall 2020 semester during the COVID-19 pandemic. | Susan J. Demas

“This outbreak doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact on the broader local community, but it does raise concerns about what the flu season may bring,” Marquez said. “Most importantly, we strongly recommend anyone not yet vaccinated against seasonal flu to do so. And anyone at higher risk of severe flu complications should talk to their doctor about prescription antiviral medications at the first sign of flu symptoms.”

DHHS officials noted that the flu outbreak coincides with a surge in COVID-19 infections; COVID case rates, positivity rates, hospitalizations and deaths are all increasing and Michigan now has the highest COVID-19 rate in the country, according to the CDC. 

“State and local public health officials are concerned with the potential for increased strain on health systems if COVID-19 and influenza cases surge at the same time this winter,” the DHHS said in Wednesday’s press release.

The number of people getting the flu vaccine in Michigan this year is down from previous seasons, according to DHHS’s flu vaccine dashboard. As of Nov. 6, a little more than two million doses of the flu vaccine have been administered — a 26% decrease from this time last year. Last flu season, approximately 3.5 million people in Michigan received a flu vaccine, the Michigan Care Improvement Registry reported. DHHS said the state has set a goal of vaccinating 4 million Michiganders for the 2021-22 flu season.

DHHS emphasized in its release that “the flu is a very serious and potentially deadly disease, especially for children, older people and people with chronic health conditions.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.