Every winter brings cautionary tales that the flu—just the regular old flu—can kill. And the cautionary tales this year are hard to beat. Twenty-one-year-old Kyler Baughman, for example, a fitness buff who liked to show off his six-pack, recently died a few days after getting a runny nose.
According to the numbers, this year’s flu season is in fact worse than usual. It got started early, and it’s been more severe. Twenty kids have died of the flu since October. And in the week ending January 6, 22.7 out of every 100,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. were for flu—twice the number of the previous week.
"Flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now," Dan Jernigan, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza branch, said during a Friday press briefing. “This is the first year we've had the entire continental U.S. be the same same color”—referring to a map of state-by-state estimate of flu activity. That color is brown, meaning the flu is “widespread” everywhere in the U.S. except for Hawaii and the District of Columbia.
Several factors have come together make this year’s flu worse for patients who get sick and for hospitals trying to treat them.
First, the virus. Fears of a bad flu season first began in the early fall, after public health officials noticed a worse-than-average flu season in the southern hemisphere. The dominant circulating strain this year is H3N2, which hits humans harder than other strains. Scientists don’t really know why, but flu seasons where H3N2 have dominated in the past have tended to be worse. STAT reporter Helen Branswell called it the “problem child of seasonal flu.”