Flu outbreak on Peninsula called worst in recent memory as season enters full swing

Tom Locke

Tom Locke

If you’ve had the flu this winter you’re not alone.

Health officials say it’s the worst outbreak in recent memory, with hospitals and clinics reporting spikes in influenza cases across the North Olympic Peninsula.

“The hospital is filled,” said Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.

“They’ve had their highest census, that is, average daily number of people there, for as long as they can remember. They are absolutely at capacity.”

Dr. Joseph Mattern, chief medical officer of Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend, said there had been “very high inpatient and outpatient activity” in recent weeks.

“And it is definitely related to the flu,” Mattern said in a Friday email.

“We have been running pretty close to our 25-bed capacity but have not had to divert patients from our hospital to this point.

“Our ER and walk-in clinic volumes have been very high and our primary care offices have also been seeing a lot of influenza and influenza-like illness,” Mattern added.

Health officials say prevention measures such as covering coughs, washing hands, vaccinations — it’s not too late to get an annual flu shot — and staying home when sick will help prevent the epidemic from getting worse.

“The most important take-home message for people is if they’re sick, they should stay home,” said Dr. Christoper Frank, Clallam County health officer.

“That’s where a lot of the spread is happening,” Frank said.

The state Department of Health reported 76 laboratory-confirmed influenza deaths so far this season.

Clallam and Jefferson counties had no confirmed flu deaths as of Friday, health officials said.

“We’re either at the peak or very close to the peak [of the flu season], and usually the peak doesn’t last for more than two or three weeks,” Locke said.

“But still, influenza will be around for a few more months.”

Clallam County already has surpassed the roughly 200 confirmed influenza cases it had in all of last winter, Frank said.

Because most people with flu symptoms never get tested, lab-confirmed cases represent the “tip of the iceberg,” Frank added.

“Clinics and emergency rooms are very busy,” Frank said.

Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles has treated anywhere between four and nine inpatients with confirmed influenza every day for the past two weeks, OMC spokeswoman Bobby Beeman said.

“Flu activity both statewide and nationwide is elevated from last year’s season,” Beeman said.

“What we are seeing here at the hospital and in our clinics is consistent with that.”

Dr. Scott Kennedy, OMC chief medical officer, said about 20 percent of the hospital’s inpatient population had the flu.

“We’re not overrun, which is good,” Kennedy said Friday.

Mattern estimated that at least 25 percent of Jefferson Healthcare’s inpatients were hospitalized with influenza.

Other hospitals on the Interstate-5 corridor are experiencing bed shortages because of the flu outbreak, local health officials said.

While influenza is “extremely prevalent” this winter, Kennedy said there are other respiratory viruses present in the community.

“In general, what we want people to do is cover coughs, use good hand hygiene and try to stay out of the public when symptomatic with flu-like symptoms,” Kennedy said.

A good rule of thumb is to stay home until the fever has subsided for 24 hours, Kennedy said.

Most patients who are hospitalized with influenza have other chronic medical conditions, Frank said.

“In addition to treating patients and their families with influenza, we continue to immunize adults and children,” Mattern said.

“It’s not too late to get your flu shot. Hopefully, all these efforts will start [to] stem the tide and reduce the number of new infections,” he added.

The vast majority of health care providers on the North Olympic Peninsula have been vaccinated for influenza.

Those who haven’t had a shot wear masks around their patients.

“OMC and Forks Community Hospital and clinics around here all have robust influenza vaccination programs and high rates of compliance,” Frank said.

This year’s influenza strain is “almost exclusively” H3N2 influenza, Locke said.

H3N2 is associated with more complications and higher death rates than other types of flu, Locke said.

“This is the strain that’s been around since 1968,” Locke said.

“This was the Hong Kong flu pandemic. We’ve long known that it’s a nastier viral strain.”

While anyone who is seriously ill is advised to seek medical care, Locke said it is “usually wise” to call ahead before checking into a crowded hospital or clinic to seek treatment for flu-like symptoms.

“They appreciate getting a heads up,” Locke said.

One strategy to maximize protection is to get vaccinated and to take Tamiflu, a drug that attacks the virus and shortens the time that symptoms persist, Locke said.

Despite temporary shortages at some pharmacies, Frank said there was “still fairly widespread availability” of the antiviral drug.

“I will add that getting a flu shot is still one of the best ways to avoid getting influenza,” Mattern said.

“Furthermore, if you are sick, stay home from school or work — influenza is particularly contagious in the first four to five days of illness.

“Lots of good hand washing and wiping down surfaces at schools and offices can help, too.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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