Massive Flu Outbreak at the University of Michigan Draws Investigators from the CDC

"The size of this outbreak is unusual," said the county's medical director, with 528 cases identified in the last five weeks

U of Michigan
University of Michigan. Photo: Alika Jenner/Getty

A massive flu outbreak at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus has led to at least 528 cases in the last five weeks, drawing the attention of the Centers for Disease Control.

The outbreak began in early October and ramped up in the last week — 313 of the 528 cases were found during the week of Nov. 8 with 37% of tests came back positive, an increase of 10% from the week prior, the school reported.

In response to the sudden increase in cases, the Centers for Disease Control is sending a team of investigators to Michigan's campus this week to understand how the virus spread at the school and to study the effectiveness of this year's flu vaccine.

The vast majority of people who tested positive for the flu at Michigan, 77%, did not get a flu shot this year. The school's health director, Lindsey Mortenson, said that the flu cases have been identified as influenza A (H3N2).

Washtenaw County health officials have been surprised by the size of the outbreak, they said Monday.

"While we often start to see some flu activity now, the size of this outbreak is unusual," said Juan Luis Marquez, medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department, in a statement on the school's website. "We're grateful for the additional support of the CDC and our ongoing partnership with the university as we look more closely at the situation."

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Marquez said that the Ann Arbor community is not necessarily at risk, but that getting the flu vaccine is vital, particularly with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

"We strongly recommend anyone not yet vaccinated against seasonal flu to do so," he said. "And anyone at higher risk of severe flu complications should talk to their doctor about prescription antiviral medications at the first sign of flu symptoms."

And health officials are concerned about what this outbreak could forewarn for flu activity across the U.S. as the season picks up. While last year's flu season was almost non-existent, it could pick up this year and cause a "twindemic" with COVID-19 still spreading.

The best protections against the flu and COVID-19 are similar — getting vaccinated, washing hands frequently, avoiding large crowds and wearing a mask indoors.

And it's not too late to get the flu shot, which "keeps their immune response boosted, so that when a flu season does finally come, they'll have some baseline immunity," Dr. Jennifer Lighter, an epidemiologist and pediatrician at NYU Langone, told PEOPLE.

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