March 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday reported that doctor visits for influenza were up last week, adding that the coronavirus outbreak may affect people seeking care for flu-like symptoms.
While a fever, chills and congestion typically signal a possible flu infection this time of year, the CDC said COVID-19 -- in addition to influencing shortages in some medications and supplies -- is affecting trends in flu reports across the United States.
In its weekly report on the seasonal flu, the agency said "the COVID-19 outbreak unfolding in the United States may affect healthcare seeking behavior, which in turn would impact" its flu estimates.
During the most recent reporting period, the number of lab-confirmed flu cases involving influenza A strains rose above the 50 percent threshold for the first time during the current season. Influenza A has been linked with more severe disease, historically, but the CDC reports that more than 99 percent of the strains currently in circulation in the United States respond to available antiviral medications.
The percentage of visits to healthcare providers for influenza-like illness increased from 5.1 to 5.2 percent during the week ending March 7, according to the CDC. In addition, 41 states -- as well as New York City and Puerto Rico -- reported "high" flu activity during the most recent period, up from 40 the previous week.
In all, the CDC estimates that at least 36 million Americans have been sickened by the flu this winter, with 370,000 requiring hospitalization. So far, approximately 22,000 deaths have been linked with the virus, including 144 confirmed deaths in children.
Even so, the percentage of deaths across the country linked with pneumonia and flu during the week ending March 7 was 7.1 percent, which remains below the agency's epidemic threshold of 7.3 percent.
Lab-confirmed flu hospitalization rates for the overall U.S. population are still moderate compared to recent seasons, but hospitalization rates for children up to four years of age -- at 88.9 per 100,000 -- and adults between 18 and 49 years of age -- at 32.8 per 100,000 -- are now the highest CDC has on record for these age groups, surpassing those reported during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic.
And, hospitalization rates for children five to 17 years of age -- at 22.6 per 100,000 -- are higher than any recent flu season but remain lower than rates experienced by this age group during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.