Ah-choo: Flu season has yet to peak on Peninsula, health officer says

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

Is it the flu or just a cold?

By The Associated Press

The common cold and flu are caused by different viruses but can have some similar symptoms, making them tough to tell apart.

In general, the flu is worse, and symptoms are more intense.

COLDS: Usual symptoms include stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and sneezing.

Coughs are hacking and productive.

It's unusual to have fever, chills, headaches and body aches, and if they do occur, they are mild.

FLU: Fever is usually present, along with chills, headache and moderate-to-severe body aches and tiredness.

Symptoms can come on rapidly, within three to six hours.

Coughs are dry and unproductive, and sore throats are less common.

PREVENTION: To avoid colds and flu, wash your hands with warm water and soap after you've been out in public or around sick people.

Don't share cups or utensils.

And get a flu vaccination — officials say it's not too late, even in places where flu is raging.

TREATMENT: People with colds or mild cases of the flu should get plenty of rest and fluids.

Those with severe symptoms, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, should see a doctor and may be prescribed antiviral drugs or other medications.

Children should not be given aspirin without a doctor's approval.

— Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Roche, maker of Tamiflu
PORT ANGELES — Flu season is ramping up from coast to coast, and the North Olympic Peninsula is not immune.

“As we're seeing elsewhere in the country, this looks to be a fairly bad flu season in Washington,” said Dr. Tom Locke, public health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, who urged residents to be vaccinated against the flu.

“We're expecting this to get worse before it gets better,” Locke said.

“It's my estimation that it will probably be two weeks until we see the peak of this.”

The state Department of Health said Friday that flu is now widespread in Washington.

Flu is in more than half of the communities in the state, health department spokesman Donn Moyer said.

He added that activity statewide appears to be increasing and could be worse than the previous two seasons, which were considered mild.

Nationwide, health officials also have forecast a potentially bad flu season, but the latest numbers hint that the flu season may already have peaked in some states — not, however, in Washington.

Flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, said Friday.

The only states without widespread flu are California, Mississippi and Hawaii.

The hardest hit states fell last week to 24 from 29, with Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina in the South, the first region hit this flu season, dropped off the list.

Locke predicted that the flu would remain widespread in Washington state through March.

“It won't all disappear in two weeks,” he said.

“Typically it peaks, then there's another two to four weeks after the peak.”

He added: “Influenza never completely goes away.”

If you haven't had a flu shot, now's the time to get one, state and local health officials said. It usually takes a week or two to develop protective immunity.

“It's not too late,” Locke said.

“We still recommend it.”

Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older.

This year's vaccine is a good match for the H3N2 strain that is most prevalent this year, Locke said.

Nationwide, nearly 130 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed this year, and at least 112 million have been used.

Six people in Western Washington have died of the flu since September.

That includes one child and four who were elderly.

None of those deaths involved Peninsula residents, Locke said.

There were 18 flu deaths in the state in 2011-2012 and 36 the previous year. The most state deaths were 98 in the H1N1 swine flu season of 2009-2010.

Even though the H1N1 flu caused a pandemic, health officials saw a lower number of hospitalizations for flu than in a typical year.

Nationally, 20 children have died of the flu this season, The Associated Press said.

There is no running tally of adult deaths, but the CDC estimates that the flu kills about 24,000 people in an average year.

Locke declared the official start of flu season in Clallam and Jefferson counties late last month.

The declaration means that health care workers must wear masks if they haven't been vaccinated.

“In Washington state, as we've been expecting, the influenza activity continues to accelerate,” Locke said.

Of the 138 laboratory confirmed cases, nearly all were the H3N2 strain.

“The significance of that is the H3N2 — a lot of times we call it H3 — tends to make people sicker,” Locke said.

“So they have a more severe illness.”

Those infected with the H3 strain are more likely to hospitalized and are at a greater risk of developing complications than people who have the H1N1 or influenza B.

“The hospital (Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles) is nearing capacity,” Locke said.

“They're approaching full census. Sometimes that means delaying elective admissions.”

OMC Chief Nursing Officer Lorraine Wall said the Port Angeles hospital can handle 62 patients without a significant strain on resources.

The patient census on Friday morning was 59.

“We are not testing all patients for influenza A,” Wall said.

“We have a few confirmed cases of influenza in our patient population, but overall the majority of patients are here for other illnesses and conditions. Olympic Medical employees are also vulnerable to illness. Employees with influenza-like symptoms — whether or not they are immunized — are asked to stay home.”

OMC is planning to handle a sustained presence of the flu, Wall said.

Officials from Jefferson Healthcare and Forks Community Hospital did not return phone calls Friday.

Flu symptoms include sore throat, fever, cough and generalized aches and pains, Locke said. Some experience nausea and vomiting, usually children.

People who come down with the flu can be sick with a fever for five to seven days, and be contagious for 10 to 14 days.

Health officials stress hand hygiene and recommend that people with the flu stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone to avoid spreading the virus.

Rest, liquids and over the counter medicines are common treatments. Antibiotics don't work against a viral illness.

“There's several other kinds of infection going around now, too,” Locke said.

A food-borne gastrointestinal virus known as winter vomiting sickness is among those that a flu shot won't cover.

However, this year's vaccine is a “very good match” for common flu strains, Locke said.

Those who were hospitalized for swine flu three years ago include a higher percentage of children.

“So far were not seeing that trend,” Locke said.

“We're certainly not seeing it in Washington state.”

“A lot of the reason this is such a public health problem is trying to protect vulnerable populations.”

________

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 12. 2013 6:08PM
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