Flu widespread in Virginia

If you have had a fever and cough or sore throat lately, you might be one of the many Virginians starting off 2017 with the flu.

Virginia is one of 46 states that started the year with a widespread incidence of flu, a denotation it earned earlier than last flu season, according to the Virginia Department of Health. In 2016, the flu was not considered widespread — reported in at least half of the state's regions — until midway through February.

"We're in the sixth consecutive week of widespread reporting in Virginia," said VDH epidemiologist Nancy Lemis. "We normally see about 12 weeks of widespread in our state, so we have a good amount of time left that we're still going to see flu cases."

The Virginia Department of Health doesn't count every person with the flu, just those with the three symptoms — a fever combined with a cough or sore throat — amounting to a flu-like illness. The counts also only come from emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, not private practices.

"About 2.5 percent of all visits to the emergency room and urgent care are for influenza-like illness," said Bill Berg, VDH interim Hampton and Peninsula Health District director. "Normally that's down around a half percent in summer and fall. Flu season usually peaks in January and February, but it can peak as early as October or as late as April.

"Even if the vaccine doesn't always keep you from getting the flu, it gives you a milder case — you're in the hospital instead of dead, or you're home in bed instead of in the hospital," Berg said. "And it helps prevent spreading the flu to others."

At area schools, Williamsburg-James City County spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said there hasn't been an uptick in cases across the district, but last week Toano Middle School had an increased number of cases.

"Our nurses are doing a lot of activity and outreach about flu and prevention through newsletters and posters," Overkamp-Smith said.

The other cohort at a higher risk of flu complications includes those 65 years or older. At Williamsburg Landing, a retirement community near Lake Powell, spokeswoman Kathy Kammer said the illness has been slow to reach them this year.

"This is late, typically by this time we're seeing many more cases, so the onset has been later this flu season," Kammer said. "We have only had a couple cases here in independent living."

Kammer said the landing follows Sentara's guidelines for when the number of cases reach high levels in the area, which the hospital announced in a Jan. 11 news release.

Employees at Williamsburg Landing are strongly encouraged to get the flu shot and if they don't, they must wear a mask throughout the season, Kammer said. She said shots are offered to employees and residents alike, though no one is required to get it.

The flu usually comes on suddenly, wearing you out for a few days with a fever, cough, sore throat, headaches and body aches. Those older than 65 and younger than 5 are at a higher risk of complications from the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"Of kids 0 to 4 years old going to the ER or urgent care, 8 percent are due to influenza-like illness," Berg said. "It's kids who are most affected by it. So far across the nation there have been eight pediatric deaths."

The vaccine is recommended for anyone more than 6 months old. Lemis said people should still get the shot if they haven't already, there are weeks of high flu activity left this season.

Only the flu shot is recommended this year, not the nasal spray vaccine because of a low effectiveness rate, according to the CDC.

Last flu season, 49.5 percent of Virginians got the vaccine, compared to 45.6 percent of the U.S. overall, Lemis said.

"The word in the community is that the outbreaks are definitely later and we're not seeing the numbers we've seen in the past," Kammer said. "Maybe that's a good omen to get us through the season."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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