Flu outbreak hits Virginia's vulnerable populations

Jimmy LaRoue
Contact Reporterjlarouejr@vagazette.com

Don’t let the flu vaccine pass you by.

With 49 states reporting widespread cases of the flu and emergency room visits increasing for the virus in Virginia, local health officials caution that people should still get the vaccine.

Not only will a vaccine reduce your chances of getting the flu, it will also help minimize symptoms if you do get it, said Dr. William Berg, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Peninsula and Hampton health districts.

“Instead of being dead, you’re in the hospital, or instead of being in the hospital, you’re home in bed, or instead of being home in bed, you’re at work coughing and irritating your colleagues,” Berg said.

About 5.5 percent of all emergency room visits across the state have been for the flu, Berg said, citing VDH data. In the eastern region, he said 4.5 percent of all ER visits have been for the flu.

But the flu vaccine is widely available at drug stores and grocery stores throughout the Williamsburg region.

Dr. Dennis Szurkus, executive medical director of infection prevention at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, said the flu vaccine is about 30 percent effective, whereas last year, it was about 32 percent effective, Berg said.

But 30 percent is still better than no protection. Both Szurkus and Berg say even if you get the flu, the vaccine can help ward off the virus faster than not having it by helping your body’s immune system fight it.

“If you look at the estimated effectiveness in the United States, it’s around the 30 percent range,” Szurkus said. “The important thing to know about that number is that’s the number of patients that the vaccine effectively prevents the flu entirely from occurring in those patients.

“So even the patients who don’t fall into that 30 percent category of not contracting the flu, there’s a larger group of patients who do have a decreased severity of illness. … Thirty percent is infinitely better than zero percent, is the phrase we like to use.”

The Williamsburg region reports widespread flu levels earlier in the year compared to the 2016-17 flu season, Szurkus said.

Vulnerable patients

Berg said two different strains of the flu are going around this season: the more common H1 strain and a more severe H3 strain. Across Virginia, he said about two-thirds of flu cases have been H3, with 23 percent having the H1 virus.

In the eastern region, the split between the two strains is nearly even, with 51 percent contracting the H3 virus and 47 percent contracting the H1 virus.

“Even if we have peaked, this is probably going to go on for several more weeks before we begin to settle down, so we can’t say the flu season is over,” Berg said.

Szurkus said during the past few weeks, Sentara Williamsburg has had an average of five patients in the hospital per day with the flu. He said that while the hospital has treated both pediatric and elderly patients, older patients tend to stay overnight, while children usually are treated and sent home.

Jessica Fielek, Sentara Williamsburg’s infection control practitioner, said last season the virus became widespread in Virginia from Christmas to New Year’s Day, and the hospital was still seeing flu cases into April.

“If that’s any indication, we could be just in the middle of it right now,” Fielek said. “I wouldn’t expect for it ... to get a lot worse than it is now. We’re seeing pretty much standard what we would see at the height of the flu season last year as far as patient volume.”

Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 20 children have died from the flu this season.

The Virginia Department of Health said the flu outbreak has been widespread since the beginning of December.

At Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, Janice Fowler, supervisor of health services, said the school division saw one to two confirmed cases of the flu at each of its 15 schools.

“The average percent of absences has been fairly steady thus far from December thru January,” Fowler said. “So I would say it is not as widespread as it is reported in the commonwealth.”

Getting better

To treat the flu, Berg said those who get sick should see their doctor and get a Tamiflu prescription, which he said is very effective against the flu, especially if taken within two days after you get sick. Even after that, Tamiflu will offer some protection against the virus, Berg said.

“You get the vaccine, you get what feels like a flu-like illness, don’t just dismiss it,” Berg said. “Give your doctor a call and say, ‘I think I’ve got the flu. Should I be taking Tamiflu?’ And for people with serious underlying illnesses, or the elderly or kids under age 2, that can literally be lifesaving, because these are the groups at the highest risk of getting the flu or getting the severe cases of the flu.”

Sentara Williamsburg, along with Riverside Doctors’ Hospital and most hospitals in Hampton Roads, have launched a community masking campaign for the flu, recommending that all patients and visitors wear a mask when they go into the hospital or other medical facilities.

The Virginia Department of Health describes the flu as affecting the nose, throat and lungs and spreads when droplets from the nose or throat are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. That’s why Szurkus and Berg stress that people should wash their hands, sneeze or cough in the crook of your elbow and get a flu shot.

Because the flu virus can appear up to a day before someone even notices symptoms, Fielek said people can spread the flu even before they know they are sick.

“Stay home if you’re sick … because even if you’re just starting to have the symptoms, you can spread the flu even before you start showing bad symptoms. So if you feel bad, just call it a day or keep your kids home from school,” Fielek said.

Tips to prevent flu

For more information on the flu or tips for fighting the virus, visit cdc.gov/flu/consumer/prevention.htm.

Source: Centers for Disease Control

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at jlarouejr@vagazette.com or on Twitter @jlaroue.

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