December 7, 2022
Influenza outbreaks have always been of particular concern on college campuses, where close-quarters living, crowded lecture halls and fluid social circles make airborne transmission especially easy. But the past two flu seasons were almost nonexistent on campuses, thanks to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic—which kept them empty—or masking and social distancing policies when students returned.
This winter, as colleges and universities cast off two years of caution, the flu is returning to campuses early and spreading fast.
The problem goes beyond densely populated campuses. While flu season usually peaks in late December or January, this year’s strain swept across the country last month, and infections are already at levels not usually reached until January or February, according to the latest CDC data. This year’s strain also appears to be more severe: more than 78,000 people have been hospitalized with flu since Oct. 1, 40 times more than at this same time last year, according to the CDC. Between the rapid spread and increased severity, some experts are saying this winter may see the worst flu outbreak in over a decade.
At the University of Pittsburgh, flu is overtaking COVID as the airborne virus of greatest concern. In a Nov. 8 message to the university community, Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office said there are likely to be “many more cases of flu than cases of COVID-19” at the end of the semester—and that those cases could be more severe than normal.
A Pitt spokesperson did not provide case numbers for this fall but said students were asked to be vigilant and proactive in protecting against infection.
“We encourage all students to take steps to stay well, like getting flu shots and COVID-19 boosters now and practicing good hand hygiene,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for the flu … prevention is the best strategy.”