The flu is hitting communities hard across the nation, overwhelming some hospitals in large cities. But just not here, officials say.
“Kentucky is at widespread flu status, which we have been at since mid-December,” Regional Epidemiologist Kristy Bolen said. “But we’re not seeing some of the issues your bigger cities are seeing.”
Flu cases begun popping up in the region in August, earlier than normal and for the last four weeks levels of confirmed cases have been higher than those typically seen at this point in the season.
“It is kind of unusual to have that much flu activity so early and for it to be sustained as long as it has,” said Bolen. “The numbers have been the same for the last two weeks but they have been higher than normal,” she said.
New numbers are due out today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but as of press time on Thursday the CDC was reporting widespread influenza activity in 41 states including Kentucky. Eighteen children have died nationwide from flu-related symptoms and 2,257 people have been hospitalized.
The 2012-2013 flu season, according to public health officials, is shaping up to be one of the longest and hardest in years.
Boston declared a city-wide public health emergency on Wednesday. In Chicago, eight hospitals had reportedly turned away emergency room patients with the flu early in the week.
Bolen said local hospitals, which are required to report flu activity, are seeing the flu but not an overwhelming number of patients.
"We're doing really well compared to what some of the other areas in the state have been dealing with,” she said. “In bigger cities, those hospitals are overwhelmed on a daily basis, throwing some flu on top of that is not going to make that situation any better. I do think at a certain point, if we stay at this level for a long time we could see some problems starting to develop.”
“We aren’t at that point, and we can keep from getting to that point if people who haven’t had a flu shot go and get it,” Lynn Ann Burnette, King’s Daughters Medical Center director of accreditation and patient safety, which includes infection control, said. Burnette pointed out that flu season also tends to stretch into early spring, peaking in February or March, meaning there is still plenty of time to get vaccinated.
Bolen and Burnette both stressed that the influenza vaccine is the best protection against illness. This year’s shot, they said, is well-matched to the strains sickening people, including the H2N3 strain that is causing the most hospitalizations and deaths.
Individuals who have been vaccinated, can still get sick, but in most cases the duration of the illness is shorter and symptoms milder. The vaccine takes about two weeks to reach peak protection levels after vaccination, but begins affording some protection immediately, Bolen said.
“We have plenty of vaccine at the health department. People can come in and get it,” said Bolen, noting many physicians offices have run out of their allotments.
Pharmacies, family care centers, and other medical centers still have plenty too, said Burnette.
Flu vaccines are recommended for all persons age 6 months and older. Children ages six months to 4 years, pregnant women, individuals with certain pre-existing medical conditions and adults over age 65 are considered most vulnerable and should be vaccinated, said Bolen.
Both Bolen and Burnette also advised vigilant hand washing. Individuals who have flu symptoms, they stressed, should stay home from work to prevent spreading the virus to others. Children will flu-like symptoms should also be kept home from school until at least 24 hours after a fever.
Influenza symptoms include upper respiratory symptoms overall body aches, chills, and fever. “It is more than just a cold,” said Burnette.
Individuals with these symptoms, she said, “should go to the doctor as quickly as they can.”
Bolen also advised parents to closely monitor children with flu-like symptoms. “I think it is really easy for us as parents to think the flu is not a big deal,” she said. “Stories like that,” she added, referring to the death of a 17-year-old Texas boy that has made national headlines, “bring to light that flu is dangerous, especially in kids that have underlying conditions. You don’t want to panic parents but you want them to understand the flu is not just a cold.”
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2653.