Flu shot promotions at Richland County CVS, Walmart and Walgreens stores. (Photo illustration by Connor Bird)

Infectious disease experts are warning people to step up their vigilance against the flu this December holiday season.

“We generally do see a spike after major holidays because larger gatherings of people create more opportunities for viruses to spread,” said physician Jonathan Knoche, a medical consultant with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

While South Carolina’s numbers have been on the decline, experts say people should still take precautions. Besides getting the flu shot, people should wash their hands frequently and wear a mask when in enclosed spaces.

“We have seen a decline in lab-confirmed flu cases over the last two weeks, but numbers are still very high, and we should still be on alert and take necessary precautions,”  Knoche said.

Nationally, flu infection numbers are the highest they have been in decades, especially in people who are 65 years or older. The CDC recommends everyone get the flu vaccine to protect not just themselves but the immunocompromised from unnecessary hospitalizations.

“Flu vaccines are the best way to protect against flu and its potentially serious complications,” Debra Houry, the CDC’s acting principal deputy director, said in a press release.

There have been 6.2 million illnesses, 53,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from the flu this season, according to the CDC. The hospitalization rate continues to be higher than in any other season since 2011, according to data from the CDC’s Fluserv-NET system.

In South Carolina, there have been 1,256 influenza hospitalizations and 16 deaths, according to DHEC. There were 25 hospitalizations and no deaths in the past two seasons combined.

South Carolina healthcare providers keep records of how many influenza-like illnesses are seen weekly. The goal is to have less than 3.6% of each county’s population sick. Of the counties reporting their influenza data, 22 of 24 have numbers above the state baseline, weekly DHEC data shows. 

A survey from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that only 49% of people plan to get their flu shot this season. The goal is to have 70% of the population vaccinated.

The CDC’s influenza surveillance team continues to encourage people to get their shots.

“So far, vaccine coverage this year is lower in some groups than it has been in past seasons,” said Lynnette Brammer, the lead of the CDC’s influenza surveillance team. “Too many people remain unprotected, while flu activity continues to rise.”

People who test positive for the flu should isolate and wear a mask to reduce virus spread, Knoche said. If symptoms start to get worse, then they should go to the hospital immediately.

A map showing how many influenza-like illnesses have been recorded in the United States. South Carolina’s numbers have decreased over the past three weeks. (Graphic courtesy of the CDC)

A Nov. 28 map showing influenza-like illness percentages on a county-by-county basis in South Carolina. The dataset shows counties that are above or below the 3.6% baseline. (Graphic courtesy of DHEC)