ATLANTA, Georgia – This year’s seemingly unyielding flu season continues to ravage the entire continental United States, as health authorities track additional deaths and hospitalizations — and there’s more of the season left.
Influenza activity continues to be widespread in all states except Hawaii, according to the weekly flu report released Friday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All while, based on the latest data, the flu season has not even peaked yet, said Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the CDC.
“Hopefully we’re in the peak currently, since the data is a week behind, or that it peaks soon. Regardless, there is a lot of flu activity happening across the country and likely many more weeks to come,” Nordlund said.
The deaths of seven more children were reported this week, bringing the total number of pediatric deaths for the season, which began in October, to 37.
There were 11,965 laboratory-confirmed flu-related hospitalizations reported from October 1 to January 20. The number of people infected with influenza could be much higher because not everyone goes to their doctor when they are sick nor do doctors test every patient.
Additionally, there were 41.9 hospitalizations for every 100,000 people. That’s an increase from the week before on par with the increases the CDC has noticed from week to week for the past couple of weeks.
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Flu can cause mild to severe illness, but also turn deadly.
“It’s still not too late to get vaccinated, as we’re starting to see some increase in Influenza A H1N1 and Influenza B activity,” she said, adding that if you think you have flu or if you are at a high risk for complications from flu, it is important to seek care early.
“Influenza antiviral treatment is recommended as early as possible for people at high risk, which includes children younger than age 5 but especially less than age 2, adults age 65 and over, pregnant women, and people with underlying medical conditions such as lung disease, heart disease and diabetes — in children, a big category includes those with neurologic or developmental disorders,” she said.
Flu is everywhere, may be declining in the West
Over the past 15 flu seasons, the current season is the first time all states in the entire continental US have reported widespread flu activity during the same week, according to the CDC.
During a call with reporters on Friday, Dr. Daniel Jernigan, director of the influenza division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at CDC, pointed to two notable characteristics of this flu season.
“The first is that flu activity became widespread within almost all states and jurisdictions at the same time. The second notable characteristic is that flu activity has now stayed at the same level at the national level for three weeks in a row with 49 states reporting widespread activity each week for three weeks,” he said. “We often see different parts of the country light up at different times, but for the past three weeks the entire country has been experiencing lots of flu all at the same time.”
From New York to California, health care providers and state officials are taking matters into their own hands to do what they can to protect their patients and residents.
“We are certainly seeing the impact of flu at our hospital locally,” said Dr. Patricia Whitley-Williams, professor and chief of the division of pediatric allergy, immunology, and infectious diseases at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order on Thursday allowing pharmacists to administer flu shots to children between the ages of 2 and 16. In addition, insurers have been asked to waive pre-authorization requirements for antiviral medications within the first 48 hours of illness.
Over the past week, the state has diagnosed a record high number of flu cases and hospitalizations, with 1,759 New Yorkers being hospitalized with confirmed flu, according to Cuomo’s office.
Schools in Gulf County, Florida closed Friday due to “a significant impact from influenza-like cases” among students and staff, according to an announcement from the superintendent of Gulf County Schools, on the school district’s Facebook page.
Schools in Gunter, Texas closed “due to widespread flu and illness” for an entire week and reopened on Wednesday, according to an announcement from the Gunter Independent School District’s superintendent. The school district closed after 253 student absences, with the majority being due to either confirmed flu or flu-like symptoms.
While there’s not one state in particular seeing the worst or higher flu activity than others, “we are seeing some signs that flu is on the decline in the West,” CDC’s Nordlund said.
During the call with reporters, Jernigan said, “we have several more weeks of flu to go, however, we have some signs that flu activity may have peaked in some parts of the country. California and other states on the West Coast are seeing activity begin to go down.”
‘We tend to forget very rapidly the impact that influenza has’
Dr. Randy Bergen, clinical lead of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Flu Vaccine Program, has been tracking laboratory surveillance and outpatient data for flu cases this season.
In a normal peak week of the flu season, Bergen said that Kaiser Northern California typically orders about 2,000 to 3,000 respiratory viral tests.
At week 52 of this flu season, which was the last week of 2017, however, “we did over 5,000 respiratory viral tests,” he said. “So, I think those are kind of the most compelling numbers that perhaps I can give you for how severe this flu season is.”
The current pervasiveness of the flu across the country appears to be similar to what was seen during peak flu season from 2014 to 2015, said Dr. Pedro Piedra, professor of molecular virology and microbiology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
That year the H3N2 subtype of the influenza A virus was the dominant strain making people sick, which appears to be the same strain being seen this year. It is typically associated with higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths, as was the case in 2014 to 2015.
“We tend to forget very rapidly the impact that influenza has on our communities, and we often times have flu seasons just as intense as this one, but we forget it,” Piedra said.
“Every so often — it’s really like every other year to every third year — where we have a flu season that is intense,” he said. “We are reminded about the number of deaths that we see, about the number of hospitalizations, the number of outpatient visits, but this happens.”
At this point, Jernigan said that no one knows how the flu season will end, but it’s currently tracking at the same level as 2014-15 season, “which was the last high severity season” the country has seen.
“These numbers can change. We may go above the 2014-15 season, and so I think it’s a little hard to make some of those comparisons,” he said. “From an activity standpoint, we’re seeing the most influenza-like illness activity since 2009, and for hospitalizations we’re seeing about the same rates that we saw in 2014-15.”
Things to do to avoid the flu
To help prevent getting the flu this season, there is still time to get a flu shot, Whitley-Williams said.
“Even if you get the flu, having received the flu vaccine may help you in terms of not having as serious a course or as devastating a course,” she said. “It may prevent you from being hospitalized if you have received a vaccine, so there is still that benefit in some cases.”
She added that if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, and think that you may have the flu, it might be time to call your doctor — especially if you have a persistent fever, weakness, or body aches that won’t go away even with over-the-counter medications.
Regardless, “if you’re pregnant, you definitely want to go in and see the doctor. If you’re over 65, you definitely want to go in and see the doctor, and if you are under 5 years of age,” she said. “These are the groups that are at highest risk.”
In addition, the good old advice to wash your hands still holds true as well as keeping your germs to yourself.