They’re not calling it an epidemic, but health and school officials in Flagler County say flu season has been more serious this year than last year, with about 33 percent more visits to the local emergency room for flu-related symptoms, and lower school attendance rates by 1 to 2 percentage points.
Flu visits to the ER were especially pronounced in November. They leveled off a bit in December. But the first week of January saw the numbers spike again, especially compared to last year, according to figures provided by Benjamin Juengst, environmental administrator at the Flagler Health Department.
“It is significantly higher than it was a year ago,” Patrick Johnson, the department’s administrator, said Wednesday. “We still do primary care here and we see a younger population and we were like everybody pretty surprised slash alarmed at the amount of flu we received in early November and early December. However in late December it seemed to have leveled off.”
Specifically, there were 263 emergency room visits for influenza-like illness in November and Deccmber 2013, or 4.3 visits per day, compared to 349 visits last November and December, an average of 5.7 per day, Juengst said. In the first six days of January 2015, there’s been 38 visits, or 6.3 per day, up from 26 visits in the same period last year.
In county schools, normal attendance is around 93 to 94 percent in high schools, 95 percent in middle schools, and 95 to 96 percent in elementary schools. At every level, Pupil Services Director Katrina Townsend said, attendance has fallen by a point or two, “but we haven’t actually had an epidemic.”
Flagler’s elevated flu activity is part of a statewide pattern, with 39 of Florida’s 67 counties reporting increased flu activity at last count by the state health department, and 43 states reporting higher activity across the nation. The flu has claimed the lives of 21 children in the country, including two in Florida. “Reports of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths are elevated. Activity is expected to continue for several weeks, especially in parts of the country that have not yet seen significant activity,” the Centers for Disease Control notes.
The flu is characterized by fever, chills, coughing, a sore throat, runny nose, headaches and body aches, fatigue and, more often among children, vomiting and diarrhea. No one is immune. But people older than 65 are more vulnerable, as are people of any age with chronic medical conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, pregnant women and young children.
This year’s flu is a mutant of the H3N2 virus. A flu vaccine was developed ahead of the season. It’s not a perfect match. But officials are still recommending that people get vaccinated.
Johnson says one of the Flagler health department’s 50 employees came down with the flu in late November after being vaccinated in September. “What’s interesting is none of our other employees became ill, none of our employees,” Johnson said. So while exposure is still possible in spite of the vaccine, the likelihood of falling ill appears significantly lower. Most of the department’s employees are vaccinated.
Johnson recommends that people who begin to feel flu-like symptoms see a doctor, where they may be prescribed anti-viral medication; that as soon as symptoms develop, individuals not go to work or school; and that everyone increase hand-washing. Townsend echoes that last recommendation for children and staff in schools, with particular attention to keeping such things as keyboards and cell phones clean, using anti-bacterial agents.
Over a period of 30 years between 1976 and 2006, the CDC reports, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from an annual low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people. During a regular flu season, about 90 percent of deaths occur in people 65 years and older.