Helen Peasley, a registered nurse for Northern Light Health, administers a flu shot to Joanne Doucette of Westbrook during a vaccination clinic at the Westbrook Community Center on Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Influenza is ravaging states in the South and is working its way up the East Coast, with high levels of flu as far north as Connecticut, federal data shows.

Maine is so far seeing low numbers of flu cases this fall, but Mainers shouldn’t expect to dodge the flu for much longer, experts say.

“Flu is on the way here,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and a far-reaching health care system in much of the state. Mills said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more flu cases in Maine within the next two weeks.

Common flu symptoms are fever, chills, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and body aches. In severe cases, influenza can cause difficulty breathing from fluid buildup in the lungs.

Mills said there’s “good news and bad news” to the looming flu season.

“The good news is that the vaccine seems to be a good match so far for the circulating virus,” she said. Because influenza has many strains and it’s unpredictable which strains will be widely circulating, scientists attempt to match the vaccine with predictions on what will be the most common strain for flu season, but it’s not always a good match.


Preliminary testing is showing this year’s flu vaccine to be a strong match for the circulating virus, making it increasingly important for Maine residents to get their flu shot if they haven’t already, Mills said.

The “bad news” is that the predominant strain so far, Influenza A, H3N2, causes more severe symptoms than other flu strains, making hospitalization more likely.

“This is a more virulent strain,” Mills said. After nearly three years without a significant flu season – largely, experts say, because COVID-19 restrictions limited the spread of viruses – the flu is hitting early this year.

While states like Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee have been among the hardest hit, Philadelphia hospitals are reporting hospital beds filling up with flu patients, and news reports in New Jersey and Connecticut are reporting surges of flu cases. Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire are not yet reporting large numbers of influenza.

Maine has low levels of influenza so far, but the numbers are growing.

Maine reported 219 cases of influenza during the week ending Tuesday – the most recent data available through the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – compared with 139 cases last week and 60 cases the week ending on Nov. 1. During flu seasons pre-pandemic, Maine has reported more than 1,000 cases per week during peak times of some flu seasons.


Flu season in Maine runs from October through May, with December to March the typical peak. Another respiratory virus that primarily affects pediatric patients – respiratory syncytial virus – also is arriving earlier, with pediatric patients falling ill and filling up hospital beds in Maine now, as opposed to a typical peak in January. The surge in RSV cases has caused pediatric beds to fill up at area hospitals. Pediatric ICU beds are 94% filled statewide, Mills said, driven by RSV cases.

On top of RSV and COVID-19 patients, hospitals also will likely soon be dealing with influenza hospitalizations.

Adam Metterville of Westbrook receives a flu shot from Helen Peasley, right, a registered nurse for Northern Light Health during a vaccination clinic at the Westbrook Community Center on Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We haven’t had influenza circulating very much these last three years,” Mills said, referring to since the pandemic reached Maine in March 2020. “If you don’t have it circulating, population immunity wanes and you get hit harder.” A similar dynamic could be what’s causing an early RSV season, Mills said.

Anna Krueger, an epidemiologist with the Maine CDC, said that the pandemic has resulted in “virus circulation that is different than what we are used to.” While the 2021-22 flu season was not severe, it peaked in mid-May, which was unusual, Krueger said. During the winter with the most restrictive COVID-19 measures in place, including mandatory masking, the flu season was mild, with less than 200 total cases.

But Krueger said flu is often unpredictable.

“The tricky reality with the flu is that there is not really a normal,” Krueger said. “Often in flu seasons we will see two peaks, two waves of the flu, and usually that’s because of two different viruses circulating at different times.”


Mills said that fortunately, the Maine health care system with COVID-19 learned how to cope with surges in respiratory illnesses. One strategy that helps stretch capacity, Mills said, is that rural hospitals can take in some of the patients with respiratory distress, leaving major hospitals such as Maine Med and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor to care for the most severe flu patients.

The best protection against the flu is to get your flu shot. About half of Americans typically get their annual flu shot. In Maine, flu shot rate is better than average, typically about 55%, according to the U.S. CDC.

“It’s not too late to get vaccinated. Now is a great time to do it,” Krueger said. “Everyone ages 6 months and older we recommend should get vaccinated for the flu every season.” Flu shots are available at many locations, including drug stores, primary care doctor’s offices, and many communities also offer free flu shot clinics.

If you also need a COVID-19 booster shot, many locations will administer the flu shot and COVID-19 booster shot during the same appointment.

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