published: Friday, January 18, 2013
Flu wracks the Sunshine State
Flu wracks the Sunshine State
MILLARD K. IVES | Staff Writer
Florida's flu season is one of the worst in years with the Centers for Disease Control identifying the state as one of dozens with high influenza illness activity.
Since the last week of 2012, about 5 percent of the emergency room and clinic visits across Florida have been due to patients exhibiting influenza-like symptoms, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Officials at South Lake Hospital in Clermont reported this week that from 20 to 25 percent of emergency-room visits since Dec. 26 have been for people coming in with flu-like symptoms. The Lake County Health Department and Leesburg Regional Medical Center, as well as the Leesburg Regional Urgent Care in Tavares, also have reported a jump in numbers.
"We are seeing an increase in positive influenza A across all age groups in the county and we are also seeing an increase in influenza B," said Sheri Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for Lake County Health Department.
The CDC reports that in the last week of 2012, its latest flu data available, influenza activity is increasing nationwide and is most elevated in the southern region of the country. Influenza A H3N2 is the most commonly detected influenza subtype.
According to local Health Department officials, the flu began to hit people throughout the nation early this season, starting in November, and has just begun to peak in Florida this month. The Northeast has been hard hit.
"This is the worst flu season we've seen since 2009, and people should take the threat of flu seriously," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said in declaring a public health emergency in his city because of the flu.
Of the 18 children who have died with flu-like symptoms so far across the nation, Aaron Keller, a spokesman with the Florida Department of Health, said two were from Florida and one lived in neighboring Polk County.
Walter Thomas, a spokesman for the Sumter County Health Department, said flu season in Florida is expected to peak this year between January and February. He encourages people to get flu shots.
"Getting a flu shot is the first and most important step in protecting against this serious disease," Thomas said. He said good hygiene is also important.
The CDC report states influenza and ILI activity is increasing in all regions of Florida, which is normal for this time of year, but regions in Central and South Florida, as well as the Panhandle, are showing higher than expected ILI activity in emergency room visits for ILI.
Keller said this flu season is the worst since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and 2010, a season which caused 230 deaths in Florida.
"Some years are just more active that others," said Keller. "It's just a more active strain."
Keller was quick to add that some other parts of the country are seeing it worse. Just in Massachusetts, there have been 18 deaths related to this year's flu, with four deaths and 700 confirmed cases in Boston alone. In Illinois, 147 people were admitted to intensive care at hospitals, and six deaths have been reported -- so severe that Chicago hospitals have been turning away patients who aren't in severe conditions, CBS New Chicago reported.
One hospital in Allentown, Pa., last week set up a tent for a steady stream of patients with flu symptoms.
Other hospitals are taking steps to deal with the influx and protect other patients from getting sick, including restricting visits from children, requiring family members to wear masks, and banning anyone with flu symptoms from maternity wards.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 22,048 flu cases from Sept. 30 through the end of 2012. By the same time last year, only 849 flu cases had been reported throughout the nation -- a 26-fold increase. CDC added the percentage of people visiting hospitals nationwide has increased two-fold in the past month.
Thomas said he doesn't expect an epidemic this year in Florida, despite the high influenza type illness activity. He stressed people need to make sure they wash their hands and cover their sneezes with their arms or inside of elbows, not their hands, which can frequently come into contact with other people or things.
"Stopping the spread of flu is something people should take seriously," Thomas said. "Cover your cough, wash your hands and please stay home if you are sick."
On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.
There's a new flu vaccine each year, based on the best guess of what flu viruses will be strongest that year. This year's vaccine is well-matched to what's going around. The government estimates that between a third and a half of Americans have gotten the vaccine.
Health officials are analyzing the vaccine's effectiveness, but early indications are that about 60 percent of all vaccinated people have been protected from the flu.
Thomas, who said it takes about two weeks after vaccination for immunity to develop and provide protection for the flu, said it's a misconception that you can cath the flu from a flu shot because the vaccine contains a dead virus. He urged people to get flu shots before the flu season hits its peak.
"There's still plenty of time," he said.
The Associated Press contributed material to this report.