Flu season hits early and, in some places, hard

NEW YORK — From the Rocky Mountains to New England, hospitals are swamped with people with flu symptoms. Some medical centers are turning away visitors or making them wear face masks, and one Pennsylvania hospital set up a tent outside its ER to deal with the feverish patients.

Flu season in the U.S. has struck early and, in many places, hard.

While flu normally doesn’t blanket the country until late January or February, it is already widespread in more than 40 states, with about 30 of them reporting some major hot spots. On Thursday, health officials blamed the flu for the deaths of 20 children so far.

Whether this will be considered a bad season by the time it has run its course in the spring remains to be seen.

“Those of us with gray hair have seen worse,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a flu expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The evidence so far points to a moderate season, Schaffner and others say. It looks bad in part because last year was unusually mild and because the main strain of influenza circulating this year tends to make people sicker and really lay them low.

David Smythe of New York City saw it happen to his 50-year-old girlfriend, who has been knocked out for about two weeks. “She’s been in bed. She can’t even get up,” he said.

Also, the flu’s early arrival coincided with spikes in a variety of other viruses, including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, or what is commonly known as “stomach flu.” So what people are calling the flu may, in fact, be something else.

“There may be more of an overlap than we normally see,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, who tracks the flu for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most people don’t undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it can be hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, or even a cold. Over the holidays, 250 people were sickened at a Mormon missionary training center in Utah, but the culprit turned out to be a norovirus, not the flu.

Flu is a major contributor, though, to what’s going on.

“I’d say 75 percent,” said Dr. Dan Surdam, head of the emergency department at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Wyoming’s largest hospital. The 17-bed emergency room saw its busiest day ever last week, with 166 visitors.

The early onslaught has resulted in a spike in hospitalizations. To deal with the influx and protect other patients from getting sick, hospitals are restricting visits from children, requiring family members to wear masks and banning anyone with flu symptoms from maternity wards.

One hospital in Allentown, Pa., set up a tent this week for a steady stream of patients with flu symptoms. But so far “what we’re seeing is a typical flu season,” said Terry Burger, director of infection control and prevention for the hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest.

On Wednesday, Boston declared a public health emergency, with the city’s hospitals counting about 1,500 emergency room visits since December by people with flu-like symptoms.

All the flu activity has led some to question whether this year’s flu shot is working. While health officials are still analyzing the vaccine, early indications are that it’s about 60 percent effective, which is in line with what’s been seen in other years.

The vaccine is reformulated each year, based on experts’ best guess of which strains of the virus will predominate. This year’s vaccine is well-matched to what’s going around. The government estimates that between a third and half of Americans have gotten the vaccine.

In New York City, 57-year-old Judith Quinones skipped getting a flu shot this season and suffered her worst case of flu-like illness in years. She was laid up for nearly a month with fever and body aches. “I just couldn’t function,” she said.

But her daughter got the vaccine. “And she got sick twice,” Quinones said.

Europe is also suffering an early flu season, though a milder strain predominates there. Flu reports are up, too, in China, Japan, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Algeria and the Republic of Congo. Britain has seen a surge in cases of norovirus.

On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC. That’s an estimate — the agency does not keep a running tally of adult flu deaths each year, only for children. Some state health departments do keep count, and they’ve reported dozens of flu deaths so far.

Flu usually peaks in midwinter. 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.

Most people with flu have a mild illness and can help themselves and protect others by staying home and resting. But people with severe symptoms should see a doctor. They may be given antiviral drugs or other medications to ease symptoms.

Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older. Of the 20 children killed by the flu this season, only two were fully vaccinated.

Online:

CDC flu: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm

More in Local News

A customer walks away after buying a hot dog from a vendor on 33rd St and Smith Street near the Everett Station on Friday. The Everett Station District Alliance pictures the area east of Broadway and south of Hewitt Avenue as a future neighborhood and transit hub that could absorb expected population growth. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
How can Everett Station become a vibrant part of city?

A neighborhood alliance focused on long-term revitalization will update the public Tuesday.

Man arrested after police find van full of drugs, cash and guns

An officer on patrol noticed a vehicle by itself in the middle of a WinCo parking lot at 2 a.m.

After work to address issues, Lynnwood gets clean audit

The city has benefited from increased revenues from sales tax.

Bolshevik replaces BS in Eyman’s voters pamphlet statement

The initiative promoter also lost a bid to include a hyperlink to online coverage of the battle.

Man with shotgun confronts man on toilet about missing phone

Police say the victim was doing his business when the suspect barged in and threatened him.

Detectives seek suspect in woman’s homicide

Alisha Michelle Canales-McGuire was shot to death Wednesday at a home south of Paine Field.

Car crashes near Everett after State Patrol pursuit

The driver and a second person in the car suffered injuries.

Injured hiker rescued near Granite Falls

Woman fell and hit her head on a rock Saturday, and her condition worsened overnight.

Two teens struck by truck in Lynnwood

The teens, between the ages of 14 and 16, were taken to the hospital as a precaution.

Most Read