According to the most recent North Carolina Influenza Surveillance Summary, there have been 10 flu-related deaths in the state this season. With the typical peak of flu season still a few weeks away, hospitals across the state are noting an uptick in outpatient and emergency department visits for influenza-like illness.
Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville tested 258 people for influenza during the month of November. Four cases were positive for influenza A. December’s numbers haven’t been released.
“We never know if it’s going to be a mild season or a bad season.” said Gloria Powers, Infection Preventionist with Onslow Memorial Hospital. “We have slightly less testing this year, for the month of October and November, compared to last year’s season.”
Back in September, OMH started vaccinating staff, contract workers and inpatients. Hospital workers are encouraging visitors and patients to use face masks, tissues and hand sanitizer located at the entrances to the hospital. If the flu season gets worse, plans have been made to implement visitor restrictions, said Powers.
“As you may recall, last year, a lot of places including us did do visitor restriction last year. But we’re continuing to watch that see if we need that this year or not.”
Last flu season was especially severe. There were nearly 400 people in North Carolina that died from flu-like illnesses, the highest number since the state started tracking both adult and pediatric flu deaths in 2009.
At Carolina East Medical Center in New Bern, 680 flu tests have been conducted since the beginning of flu season. Thirty-six patients tested positive for influenza A, and eight tested positive for influenza B, said Cathy Fisher, Manager of infection prevention at Carolina East Medical Center in New Bern.
“We are beginning to see flu, probably a couple cases a day that are testing positive for either A or B, but we’re not at the epidemic level yet.”
Before flu season started, Carolina East distributed information on how to avoid catching the flu and made sure hospital staff, volunteers and physicians received the vaccine, Fisher said.
“We do all of that in preparation for the time period where [there's a] locally declared epidemic, and there’s a flu epidemic every year. That’s when the numbers peak.”
Fisher encourages everyone to receive the influenza vaccine, which can minimize your risk of catching the flu and reduce the severity of symptoms if you do get sick. Those experiencing fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches or other flu-like symptoms should stay at home, said Fisher.
“You can actually be contagious with the flu for two days before you actually get sick.”
Emergency departments and outpatient providers report information to the State and the CDC about how many of their visits are for people with flu-like illnesses.
“Right now, we’re seeing pretty much on point with past seasons,” said Anita Valiani, Influenza epidemiologist with the NC Division of Public Health. “We’re seeing activity in both those visits in North Carolina just picking up slowly and moving along like we do at the beginning of most flu seasons.”
North Carolina is among 11 states experiencing low influenza activity so far this season, according to the latest influenza surveillance report from the CDC.
The main flu strains circulating right now are influenza A types. That includes H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, and H3N2, a highly contagious and deadly strain that’s responsible for last season’s epidemic. It’s too soon to tell what the predominate strain will be for this season, said Valiani.
“But so far, we’re seeing a little more activity for H1N1.”
If that’s the case, Valiani said this year’s influenza vaccine may be more effective than the previous year.
“The vaccine is a great match for the H1N1 component of it, so if this is predominantly an H1N1 season, we’ll be right there and if it’s A (H3N2), we’ll be pretty well protected as well. It’s a pretty good match for that virus strain as well.”