By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
This year’s flu outbreak has impacted more people and brought about more severe symptoms than it has in several years.
Christina Chommanard, a senior epidemiologist with the Alexandria Health Department, said the predominant strain of the flu this year, H3N2, was also severe during the 2013-2014 season.
“We tend to see the [strain] that’s circulating this year just tends to make people a little bit sicker than other types of flu, and it can be particularly hard on the elderly and the very young. This is not very unexpected,” Chommanard said.
To gauge the severity of a specific flu season, the Centers for Disease Control monitors nationwide Influenza Like Illness activity.
The national ILI baseline is 2.2 percent of people seeking medical treatment. Chommanard said this percentage increases every flu season, beginning around October, peaking around January or February and lasting as late as May.
Last week, the CDC reported that nationwide, 6.6 percent of people seeking medical care had Influenza Like Illness. Statewide in Virginia, the proportion is 6.1 percent.
As of last week, the Northern Virginia region is above the national and state average at 8 percent, Chommanard said. She said public health specialists track data regionally since residents in the area often work, visit and seek healthcare in different cities and counties throughout the region.
“Because we look at Northern Virginia as a whole, we can’t particularly say that Alexandria’s being hit harder,” Chommanard said. “Our communities are very fluid, so overall, Northern Virginia has seen more Influenza Like Illness than the rest of the state.”
According to the CDC, ILI has been at or above the national baseline for eight weeks so far this season. Over the past five flu seasons, ILI has remained at or above baseline for 16 weeks on average.
“The CDC is predicting that it’s peaking now, but we haven’t seen a drop off as yet,” said Dr. Martin H. Brown, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Inova Alexandria.
Brown said in the past week, the number of people coming to Inova’s Emergency Department for Influenza Like Illness has been around 20 to 30 a day, and the numbers are continuing to rise.
Despite the influx of patients, Brown said both the hospital and ED have open beds available, other than brief surge times when they hit capacity. He said the only visitation restrictions were for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Freddi Brubaker, MSN, senior director of emergency services at Inova Alexandria, said hospital staff was taking its usual precautions to help prevent the spread of the disease.
“I think everyone’s just being more vigilant as far as, well we have very good hand hygiene rates, just reminding people to wash their hands, clean areas, wear a mask if possible, put a mask on the patient, encourage the patient to wash their hands … We’re doing things like that,” Brubaker said.
Chommanard said the public should take precautions such as washing hands and coughing into a sleeve. She also said it was not too late to get the flu vaccination at a health care provider, urgent care center or local pharmacy.
In Alexandria, several pharmacies have run out of the flu vaccine and are unable to restock due to shortages. This includes the Walgreens on King Street and most CVS pharmacies throughout the city. That being said, urgent care and emergency facilities, including CVS Minute Clinic, are still able to vaccinate.
Helen Lloyd, director of communications for Alexandria City Public Schools, said there has been high absenteeism in the division since Jan. 19 that may be due to the flu. She said it was hard to determine how many cases of the flu there have been, since absence reports might not specify why a child isn’t in school.
Lloyd said three elementary schools have had particularly high absenteeism.
“We have sent letters out about the flu to Patrick Henry, [James K.] Polk and George Mason elementary schools saying wash your hands, stay at home if you’re sick, don’t come to school,” Lloyd said.
Brown said people of certain age groups and with preexisting conditions should take extra precautions if they start feeling ill.
“The important things about the flu are that people at the extremes of age – the very young, the very old and pregnant women, all have different immune systems and they’re at more risk for more serious disease,” he said. “People at the extremes of age, pregnant women and people with lots of co-morbidities, you should be careful with the flu.”
Chommanard said these high-risk groups should go to a doctor right away after symptoms start to see whether they needed to be prescribed an antiviral to help reduce the duration of illness and severity.
Chommanard encouraged people who experience a relapse and people with severe symptoms to seek medical attention; however, she said most people recover on their own between five to 10 days.
People with the flu should stay home for 24 hours after their fever has gone away without the help of fever reducing medication.
Brown said people often ask at what point they should seek medical help.
“I think that it is not unusual for somebody who has a fever or [who] feels bad to go to urgent care or to their primary doctor to check and see if they would benefit from any additional therapy,” Brown said.
For more information about the flu and measures you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones, please visit the Virginia Department of Health’s website.