We’ve seen the headlines: Flu season began earlier and is far worse than in years past. The CDC estimates there were at least 18 million flu cases, 190,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 deaths from influenza in the United States during the last three months of 2022.
The Evernorth Research Institute analyzed pharmacy claims data for more than 16 million people during that period and found a higher prevalence of prescriptions filled for antiviral medications than in previous flu seasons (up 314% year-over-year). This indicates that more people are getting sick with the flu earlier on, and that their symptoms are severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit and a prescription.
Prevalence of Members Filling Antiviral Meds for Flu
Graph above shows prevalence of members (per 1 million) filling prescriptions for antiviral medications. Numbers (4-52) indicate the weeks in the annual flu season (September to August).
Who is Impacted Most by the Flu?
The analysis found that children and youths have a higher need for antiviral medications compared with other age groups. “The higher prevalence could be a result of parents and guardians being more likely to seek medical attention for their dependents,” said Urvashi Patel, vice president of the Evernorth Research Institute. “Adults themselves may not always seek medical attention when they are ill, particularly if their symptoms are mild.”
Geography also makes a difference. Southern states have higher prevalence of antiviral medication usage, which correlates with lower rates of flu vaccinations. One reason could be that a relatively large proportion of people in Southern states live in rural areas, where access to vaccines can be more challenging. Also, the research shows that the flu season began in the South and has been tracking North.
Current Flu Season: Prevalence of Antiviral Medication by Region
Graph above shows the regional breakdown of prevalence of members (per 1 Million) filling prescriptions for antiviral medication, by week number in the current flu season (September 2022 to November 2022).
The Evernorth Research Institute analysis also found disparities among ethnic and racial groups. “Overall, the highest usage of flu antiviral medications is among people living in areas with the most social needs,” Patel said. These insights are in line with research tracking the flu over the last decade, which found that Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Natives consistently have had higher rates of hospitalization and admission to intensive care units than their white counterparts.
“Flu vaccine levels aren’t as high as we’d like them to be,” Patel said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as of mid-December, 39.8% of American adults have received a flu vaccine, up from 35.7% at the same point in 2021. Additionally, 47.5% of children aged 6 months to 17 years have been vaccinated, compared with 47.2% a year earlier.
“We will continue to work with our clients to promote and educate about the importance of the flu vaccine,” Patel said.