Alabama Public Health Department braces for onset of cold and flu season

By: - October 19, 2023 2:16 pm
A bottle of flu vaccine.

A bottle of influenza vaccine at a CVS pharmacy and MinuteClinic on September 10, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) said Thursday that respiratory virus cases are manageable as the cold and flu season begins.

“Our respiratory virus season is upon us, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about that,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said to state committee board members of the ADPH Thursday.

Harris said that statewide influenza-like activity is about 2.5% of patient visits to healthcare providers for any influenza-like illness reported each week, a minimal activity level according to the CDC. The Southeast region has relatively low activity rates. Alaska with the highest rate of influenza like illnesses.

Around the same time last year, the influenza-like illness activity level was about 5%. According to the CDC, Alabama had the second-highest per capita death rate from flu in the country in 2021, with 16.8 deaths per 100,000 people. Only Mississippi had a higher rate of death from the flu that year.


The state health officer also said about 120 people in the state are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Harris said that caseload was manageable. That is far below the Jan. 2021 peak, when the state averaged nearly 3,000 hospitalizations a week.  

Some of those patients, he said, are hospitalized with COVID, but first arrived at the hospital with another condition. From a hospital standpoint, they still have to treat those patients the same way. They’ve still got to isolate these patients, Harris said.

“It’s still an issue for hospitals, but in terms of actually saying what morbidity is caused by COVID itself, it’s certainly not all that,” he said.

According to data reported on Oct. 14, the percentage of RSV tests that detected the virus via an antigen, or rapid, test was 11.3%, significantly up from .6% in mid-July. The last time that rate was above 10% was in November last year.

About 8% of Alabamians are up-to-date on their COVID vaccines, meaning they received the bivalent COVID booster, according to the CDC. The national average is about 17%.

ADPH embarked in a “Ask Your Doctor” campaign to encourage people to talk to their physicians about getting vaccinated against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19 and the flu, the three major viruses for which there are now vaccines. The department also encouraged people to discuss the pneumonia vaccine with their doctors.

With the approval of the RSV vaccine in May, Harris said health care professionals for the first time have vaccines to fight the three major respiratory illnesses that have harmed public health the most.

RSV often gives people mild cold-like symptoms. Most recover within a week or two, but it can be severe, especially for infants and older adults.

Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the new RSV vaccine for adults over 60 and children under 2 years old, as well as people who are 32-36 weeks pregnant to protect their babies from severe RSV.

“RSV is one of those things that we have never thought a lot about, simply because we didn’t really have any tools to fight it,” Harris said. “We know it’s fairly common, particularly for folks that are vulnerable in that way.”

He said that infants and babies should get one vaccine dose as they approach their first RSV season, unless the mother was immunized during pregnancy. If the mother received the vaccine at least the weeks before birth, the baby should also have that protection, but there’s no problem with immunizing a baby whose mom has had the vaccine.

It is also recommended that high risk children get a second RSV vaccine a year later.

Besides the RSV vaccine, there is a monoclonal treatment for those who get infected.


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Alander Rocha
Alander Rocha

Alander Rocha is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for KFF Health News and the Red & Black, Georgia's student newspaper. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.