According to Healthnews analysis, COVID-19 hospitalizations show a distinctly different pattern across age groups compared to other viral infections, with older adults experiencing a 79.3% higher rate with COVID-19 than influenza, and children under 1 year seeing a 12.2% higher rate compared to influenza.
Influenza hospitalizations peaked at 5.5 per 100,000 people in the week concluding on December 23, 2023 (Figure 1). This peak slightly trails behind that of COVID-19, which recorded its highest weekly rate at 5.8 per 100,000 people in the earlier weeks of the same month (Figure 2).
As a result, it may lead to a potential overlap in hospitalization burden on healthcare systems during the winter.
Figure 1: Weekly Hospitalization Rates per 100,000 for Influenza, by Season.
Figure 2: Weekly COVID-19 Hospitalization Rates, by Season.
Data reporting often experiences delays around holidays, and the most recent data provided by the CDC was entered about a week ago, on January 3, 2024.
The hospitalization rate for those over 65 is significantly higher for COVID-19 compared to influenza.
- Specifically, it is 79.3% higher in the 65+ age group (25.1 vs. 14.0).
- For children up to 1 year, the COVID-19 hospitalization rate is 12.2% higher than for influenza (11 vs. 9.8).
This shows that older adults and infants continue to be vulnerable to respiratory infections. The close rates between COVID-19 and influenza hospitalizations suggest that both viruses are contributing similarly to the healthcare burden during this period.
COVID-19 hospitalization risks and the role of exercise and lifestyle
Allison Krug, MPH, an epidemiologist and certified professional health coach, explains why COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked recently. "This increase could point to either a higher prevalence or severity of the disease in older adults, highlighting the need for targeted healthcare strategies," Krug explains.
She notes that the current hospitalization rates for respiratory viruses are typical for the season, but certain groups are more at risk than others. "The individuals at highest risk are those over 65 years old, those with chronic health conditions, and very young infants, especially those born prematurely, due to their narrow airways," she says.
Krug also recommends daily self-care as a defense against serious respiratory infections. Citing a study from the British Journal of Medicine, which analyzed 1.8 million people, she highlights regular exercise as a key protective factor against severe COVID-19 complications.
"What does adequate exercise look like?" Krug asks. "The sweet spot is at least 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise." She points to the CDC's table of recommended exercises and suggests practical ways to achieve this goal, like walking 5 miles at 3–4.5 mph twice a week.
Beyond exercise, Krug advises on other health measures: "Staying hydrated helps your immune system function effectively, while sufficient sleep is crucial for cellular repair."
The expert also highlights the importance of vitamin D for a healthy immune system, recommending regular sun exposure and possibly taking supplements, especially for people living far from the equator.