By Derrick Perkins
Feeling under the weather? You’re not alone. Flu season struck earlier and harder than usual across the country this year, and Alexandria is not immune to the epidemic.
“We have seen in the community an uptick of what we call ILI — influenza-like illness. This started about the middle of December and has been creeping up,” said Dr. Stephen Haering, head of the Alexandria Health Department. “There are different strains that are circulating around, but what we’re finding is that this is influenza A, which typically causes a more severe disease. It’s more virulent. It punches you harder.”
The unusually severe outbreak made national headlines last week after officials in Boston declared a public health emergency. Mayor Thomas Menino said about 700 cases of the illness had been confirmed in the city, and officials say Massachusetts has seen 18 flu-related deaths.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo followed suit days later as nearly 20,000 cases of the flu had been reported statewide. Cuomo’s declaration came as the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control confirmed the outbreak had reached epidemic levels.
Virginia has not been spared. The state Health Department lists the flu as “widespread,” with young and teenage children the hardest hit age groups in recent weeks.
While there is evidence the flu is ebbing nationally, Inova spokesman Tony Raker said the hospital network’s doctors remain cautious.
“What the doctors are telling me is that we don’t know whether it’s hitting its peak,” he said. “We do know it’s hitting harder earlier than usual. How much farther can it go? Does it mean the standard duration, or is it going to hit and then drop off? That’s the point the doctors are concerned about.”
Inova has mobilized to counter the outbreak, bolstering shifts with extra personnel and scheduling extra flu vaccine clinics across the region. They also have tightened visitation procedures, he said.
Visitors can expect to receive a mask or other protective gear upon entering the hospital, and no visitors younger than 18 or displaying flu-like symptoms will be allowed entry.
“The challenge that we’ve got is this: People in the hospital already have compromised immune systems, and people who already have the flu may have it for 24 hours before symptoms appear,” Raker said. “We don’t want to make [patients] any more sick. We want to make sure the influenza isn’t spread to them — patients and caregivers.”
Raker also asks residents suffering from flu-like symptoms to head to their primary physician — not the hospital. Unless the individual is pregnant, younger than 5 or older than 65, it’s an expensive trip to be told to go home, take Tylenol, rest and stay hydrated, Raker said.
The only exceptions would be individuals suffering from a persistent high fever or excessive vomiting.
And for those who have so far escaped the illness, Raker and Haering recommend getting the flu shot immediately.
“You can still get it,” Raker said. “You still need to get it.”
Haering pointed to the lessons learned during the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic: wash your hands and stay home if you’re feeling ill. If you cough or sneeze, do it into your elbow.
If you think you’ve got the flu, you probably do, he said.
“The real difference between influenza and a common cold is the severity of it,” Haering said. “Also with influenza, you tend to feel like you got run over by a Mack Truck.”