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Delta may be loosening its grip on Philly region, but COVID-19 and flu pose a dual threat for winter

Flu is expected to be more rampant this year, some experts say, and if coronavirus and influenza surged at the same time, hospitals could be overwhelmed.

A COVID-19 sign on a North 15th Street bus shelter in Philadelphia in September.
A COVID-19 sign on a North 15th Street bus shelter in Philadelphia in September.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

New coronavirus case counts have remained steady for weeks now across the Philadelphia region after last month’s delta-variant-driven surge.

These trends provide a glimmer of hope, indicating the coronavirus may be loosening its grip on the region, at least for now. Winter looms, however, bringing uncertainty not only about the possibility of another coronavirus resurgence but also about the severity of flu season in a society that has shed many mitigation measures.

“Even though we had a really mild flu season last year, this year is full of a lot of unknowns,” Pennsylvania’s acting physician general, Denise Johnson, said Tuesday at a news briefing. “Last year, we were in a really different position. We were doing all of the safety measures. We were social distancing, washing our hands, masking.”

Last flu season, fewer than 4,000 flu cases were reported in the commonwealth, far lower than the 131,000 reported in a typical year, Johnson said.

This year, with the reopening of schools and offices and increased socialization, flu is expected to be more rampant, some experts say. And if both coronavirus and influenza surged at the same time, hospitals could be overwhelmed. That’s why Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials have in recent days stressed the renewed importance of getting vaccinated against the flu, as well as against the coronavirus.

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Getting a flu vaccine “can help to conserve potentially scarce health-care resources during the ongoing pandemic,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday. “It’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading this fall and winter, making it more important than ever to get a flu vaccine.”

As for the coronavirus, there are signs that the situation is improving nationwide. The country — parts of which were hit with delta earlier than the Northeast — has seen new case counts and hospitalizations decline in recent weeks, according to data collected by the New York Times. Cases are down about 50% in early delta hot spots such as Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

It’s more of a mixed bag in the Philadelphia region. In New Jersey, both new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have declined over the last two weeks, although new cases in some South Jersey counties are falling at a slower rate than the state average. In Pennsylvania, new cases and hospitalizations have risen slightly during the same period. However, in Philadelphia and its suburbs, both metrics have largely plateaued.

Abby Rudolph, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University, said the steadying metrics send mixed signals.

“You could say it’s good news in that now that kids are back in school, that [cases are] not continuing to be on the upward trend,” she said. At the same time, “I would like to see it level out at a lower level. ... I don’t think this is the level people would like to accept as normal.”

An average of more than 6,500 cases are being reported each day in Pennsylvania and New Jersey combined. In July, before the delta surge, that number was in the hundreds.

A combination of vaccination and continued mitigation measures such as regular masking can help drive the current numbers down further, Rudolph said, as can uptake of booster shots among people who are vulnerable.

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Pennsylvania has fully vaccinated 58% of its total population, according to New York Times data, while New Jersey has vaccinated 65%. Both states have given at least one dose to 73%. With children under 12 not yet eligible for shots, the percent of adults who are vaccinated is even higher.

As September ended with fewer new vaccinations than previous months, officials across the region have continued to beg the unvaccinated to get immunized.

While encouraging seniors and other high-risk individuals to get boosters if eligible, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy reiterated those pleas Monday to the unvaccinated.

“If you haven’t gotten your first shot yet,” the governor said, “that’s the biggest mountain we have to climb still.”