Last flu season was the most deadly in years and Chicago public health advocates are urging residents to get vaccinated.
More than 80,000 people died from the flu last season in the United States, according to early estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it’s far lower than the almost 700,000 people who died in the U.S. during the so-called Spanish flu pandemic that hit worldwide 100 years ago, last season was a “record-breaking” death toll, the highest since at least the late 1970s, according to the CDC.
Chicago was not spared. Between October and May, more than 580 were admitted to ICUs for flu-related illness. That’s more than double the previous season, during which 275 were admitted. The flu killed more than twice as many people in Chicago during the 2017-18 season as the season before, with 38 of those admitted to intensive care dying in Chicago, versus 17 the year before.
Area emergency rooms, including Stroger Hospital’s, were inundated with sick patients. A little fewer than 700 visited Stroger with flu-like illness last season, more than three times the number who went there the year before.
It’s too early to say how bad this flu season is going to be – the CDC won’t even start tracking flu cases for the season until later this month – but it’s better to take precautions as soon as possible, experts say.
Although many might balk at getting a flu shot – more than 60 percent of adults in Chicago did not get one by November last year, according to the Chicago health department – getting it sooner may prevent serious illness, hospitalization or death.
“Only 29 percent of those hospitalized in ICUs received a flu shot,” said Dr. Marielle Fricchione, medical director of the city’s immunizations program. “About 18 percent of those who died received a flu shot.”
Children especially can be helped by the flu vaccine. Last season, 172 children died from flu-related illnesses in the United States – a record for a flu season, according to the CDC. About 80 percent of those who died had not received a shot. Nine children in Illinois died.
The number of those who died of flu or related complications last season is small in comparison to the number who died during 1918.
Again, Chicago was not spared; in a period of just over 30 hours in early October 1918, close to 800 new cases of flu were reported.
“The records of deaths were more startling,” said an Oct. 4, 1918, report in the Chicago Daily Tribune. “Seventy-six deaths were ascribed to influenza and forty-three to pneumonia during the thirty hour period.”
Days later, another report notes, the city health commissioner asked the police chief to order the arrest of “all persistent coughers and sneezers who fail to cover their faces with handkerchiefs.”
Schools were also briefly closed. Even theater managers made announcements before shows, asking the owners of “persistent coughs” to exit. Church pastors did the same before their services.
A century later, public health experts have simpler advice, made easier by the development of the flu vaccine.
“If you want to protect those in our communities who are most at risk of getting sick, get a flu shot,” said Fricchione.