Mass. among several states seeing ‘very high’ flu levels

“This is a good time to get the flu vaccine if you haven’t yet.”

A 3rd grader gets her COVID-19 booster shot at a vaccination clinic where flu shots were also offered.
A 3rd grader gets her COVID-19 booster shot at a vaccination clinic where flu shots were also offered. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Flu season is back with a vengeance, as thousands of sniffly-nosed Bay Staters can attest. 

After a few years of milder flu seasons, Massachusetts is now among several states in the U.S. facing “very high” levels of flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 5,462 new lab-confirmed flu cases in the week ending Dec. 3, nearly twice the prior week’s cases, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Health. 

“We’re seeing a lot of people with coughing and with fevers, and this has started going up even more after the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center.

Flu season

The CDC estimates there have been somewhere between 13 million to 27 million cases of the flu and at least 7,300 flu deaths in the U.S. since Oct. 1. 

Who’s getting sick, and why? 

Colder weather could be one factor driving up flu activity in Massachusetts, as people tend to spend more time indoors, Assoumou told Additionally, lower levels of flu activity in recent years means the general population may not have built up as much immunity from exposure to the virus, she explained. 


The result: Massachusetts’s flu season is off to a rocky start, with a high level of cases occurring earlier than usual.

“This is an early influenza season,” Assoumou said. “It kind of started much earlier, and it’s intensified much earlier than what we’ve seen.”

In Boston, some communities are feeling the virus’s impact more than others.

Children and teens under the age of 18 made up 59% of the city’s reported flu cases, and more than a quarter of those cases have been in infants and children younger than 5, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.

More than half of flu cases citywide were among Black and Latino residents, and the neighborhoods hit hardest by influenza are in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Hyde Park, the commission said in a news release Thursday.

What it means for hospitals

Assoumou said she worries that high flu levels could overwhelm the health care system, especially as health care providers contend with other respiratory illnesses.

“That’s often one of our biggest worries, because if we get overwhelmed with influenza cases or other respiratory infections, we don’t have the capacity to take care of all the other illnesses that we traditionally also see in the hospitals,” she said. 


Earlier this month, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said flu hospitalizations were the highest the country has seen at this time of year in a decade

Meanwhile, Massachusetts General Hospital is reporting “capacity concerns,” reaching about 90% capacity for adult patients, according to WHDH

“We have seen a tremendous rise in the number of RSV cases in children, but that’s starting to decline,” Dr. Paul Biddinger, MGH chief preparedness and continuity officer, told the station. “But influenza is following right on its heels and those numbers are really rising.”

What you can do

“This is a good time to get the flu vaccine if you haven’t yet,” Assoumou said. 

The state Department of Public Health estimates that only 38% of Massachusetts residents have received a flu shot so far this season, and Assoumou said a lack of knowledge about this year’s vaccine might be a factor. 

“I think that a lot of people maybe don’t realize how good this vaccine is in terms of being a good match with the circulating [strains], and maybe they may have had experiences of … getting vaccinated in the past and still getting the flu,” she said. 


Studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% to 60% among the overall population when the vaccine is well-matched to most circulating strains, according to the CDC. 

Assoumou emphasized that it’s not too late to get a flu shot, especially for those in high risk groups, which include older adults, young children, and people with underlying conditions. Washing hands, wearing masks indoors, and staying home while sick can also help reduce the virus’s spread, she said. 

Flu season typically peaks between December and February, though the CDC notes that significant flu levels can last as late as May.  

“I’m hoping we peak early,” Assoumou said. “There’s definitely a lot of things that we can actually do to improve and try to influence that.”

She added: “We all have a role to play, right?”


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