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Flu, COVID combo this winter could be a tough test for health officials

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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) – The flu season is off to a rip-roaring start in Arizona this year, up by 56% over this time last year and up 275% in a typical year according to state statistics.

As of this week, there have been 133 lab cases of influenza. Last year, at this time, there were 22. 81 of those cases were last week alone.

It doesn’t necessarily mean this will be an exceptionally bad year because the number of cases can speed up or slow down during the season. But, in order to prepare for what might happen, the county will look elsewhere for guidance, a place like Australia.

“Their cases came up a couple months early, in addition they saw cases three to five times higher than they would normally see,” said Matt Christenberry, an epidemiologist in the Pima County Health Department. “That’s very concerning.”

It doesn’t mean Tucson will mirror the land down under, but it’s close enough that Pima County can use it to prepare for what may be coming. Australia’s flu season is just ending so the county can use its history to determine if the flu vaccine works on the strains the county will be facing this year. Being able to predict that, will give it a head start.

Its concerning this year because a new omicron variant is making its way across country and will soon land in Arizona, BQ1 and its subvariant BQ1.1.

“That are what we call new variants of interest and variants of concern,” he said. “And we can monitor these two omicron variants that have been causing cases in New York and other places in the US.”

But with an early flu season and a new variant, this winter could be difficult for health officials.

“We really want all Arizonans, six months and older, to receive the annual flu shot,” said Carla Berg, a Deputy Director at the Arizona Department of Health. “We are seeing a slight increase and an elevated case count compared to this time in previous years.”

Even with a plea from state health officials to get the jab this year, only about half will actually get the flu shot. That could complicate things if the flu season and the COVID winter spike also proves to be difficult.

“Getting your vaccine at a time we’re not seeing a lot of activity, because we do know that it takes about two weeks for your body to mount a response to the vaccine and we want to make sure people are protected as they can be,” Christenberry said.

Several parts of the country, including the Deep South West to Texas have gotten an early start on the flu season which means it may soon impact Tucson.

The flus kills an estimated 50,000 people in the US every year.

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