Flu season in full swing, health official says

After a slow start to flu season, influenza is coming on strong in Snohomish County. Positive flu tests at local clinics have risen dramatically in the past two weeks. The predominant strain is H1N1, which is more apt to strike young adults and children than people over 65.

That’s the same type of influenza seen during the swine flu epidemic of 2009, but there is good news. Unlike the 2009-10 season, the H1N1 strain is in the current vaccine, which is widely available.

“The season appears to be in full swing now, and it does appear to be predominantly the H1N1 strain,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer and director of the Snohomish Health District.

Flu is not a reportable disease, so the Health District doesn’t record every case. “We do get reports of hospitalizations,” Goldbaum said earlier this week. As of Monday, the Health District had reports of 12 people hospitalized with flu at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett or Swedish Edmonds.

“That is actually less than we had reported to us at this time last year. At this point I can’t say that we are going to have a better or worse flu season,” Goldbaum said. “The only difference I can note at this time is that the ages of individuals this year appear generally to be younger than the ages last year.”

The Everett Clinic, which does rapid influenza diagnostic testing, tracks flu cases and is seeing numbers jump.

“In the last three weeks it went from zero to a bunch of positive cases,” said Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, an internal medicine specialist at The Everett Clinic’s Walk-In Clinics. “Usually you get a case here or there, but there was nothing until three or four weeks ago. The whole thing just exploded,” said Tu, who heads flu and vaccination services at The Everett Clinic.

“The numbers are steadily climbing,” said April Zepeda, an Everett Clinic spokeswoman. For the week ending Nov. 30, the clinic saw no positive flu cases. There were just three in the first week of December.

By the week ending Dec. 14, Zepeda said the clinic saw 18 positive flu cases, followed by 31 cases in the week ending Dec. 21. Last week, there were 28 positive cases. Zepeda suspects that number was down slightly because the clinic was closed Christmas Day and half the day Christmas Eve.

The Everett Clinic, Tu said, is among sentinel sites for reporting flu cases to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The best way to prevent influenza is by getting a flu vaccine, Tu and Goldbaum said.

“It’s not too late. The only time it’s too late is after you already have the flu,” said Goldbaum, adding that it’s also smart to wash your hands well and frequently, cover your cough, and stay home when sick.

It can take up to two weeks after getting a flu vaccine to have its maximum protection, but a shot will bring some benefit within days. “It’s certainly better than walking around unprotected,” Tu said.

Among Everett Clinic patients, Tu said, fewer have gotten flu shots so far this season than at the same time a year ago. By the end of 2012, the clinic had administered 57,000 flu vaccines, but at the end of 2013 only about 30,000 shots had been given. “Lots of folks are not vaccinated. And there’s plenty of vaccine,” Tu said.

Three people in Washington have died from flu so far this season, none of them in Snohomish County, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last flu season, seven deaths in Snohomish County were attributed to flu-related illness, which often peaks here in February or later.

During the swine flu epidemic of 2009-10, 98 deaths in Washington were blamed on influenza. In 2009, the regular flu vaccine did not contain the H1N1 strain. The Health District offered H1N1 vaccine clinics later in that flu season.

Several people hospitalized locally for flu in the past three weeks were under 60, “and that’s consistent with reports nationwide,” Goldbaum said. Typically, those at highest risk are over age 65, but not when H1N1 is the dominant flu strain. Younger people and pregnant women were among those hardest hit in 2009, Goldbaum said.

Flu shot recommendations have expanded to include most everyone over 6 months old, Goldbaum said. With this year’s vaccine protecting against H1N1 and two or three other strains, it’s especially important for young people to get it.

It was suspected during the 2009 outbreak that older people may have been exposed to a strain like H1N1 earlier in life, providing some immunity.

“Vaccination has two effects,” Goldbaum said. Along with protecting an individual, it prevents widespread flu even among those not vaccinated — including babies whose immune systems aren’t mature enough for flu shots. “It’s like whooping cough. The way to protect infants is to vaccinate,” Goldbaum said.

How do you know it’s flu?

“If you don’t have a fever, it is not flu,” Goldbaum said. Influenza is caused by viruses that affect the nose, throat and lungs. With fever and chills, a sufferer may have a cough, body aches, headache, sore throat and nasal congestion.

Antibiotics don’t cure flu, but anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu may shorten symptoms if taken in the first couple days.

Tu fears the winter school break has acted as a buffer, and that flu cases may soar when classes start. “Once they go back to school, we may see a huge increase. That applies to elementary, middle and high school — and colleges too,” he said.

There are several types of vaccine, including a nasal spray for younger people and a high-dose version for seniors. All include the H1N1 strain.

“The most important thing is just to get one of them,” Goldbaum said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Vaccine available

  • Flu shots are widely available at local pharmacies.
  • Snohomish Health District clinics in Everett and Lynnwood also offer flu vaccines, $30 per adult or $15 per child, payable by cash, check, credit card, Provider One coupons or Medicare.
  • Reduced fees are available based on income and household size. Shots are by appointment only. Make one by calling:
  • Snohomish Health District Everett Immunization Clinic, 3020 Rucker Ave., Suite 108, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. 425-339-5220.
  • Snohomish Health District Lynnwood Immunization Clinic, 6101 200th Ave. SW, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays. 425-775-3522.
  • Free flu and whooping cough vaccines will be available for uninsured and low-income adults 3:30-5:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at Comcast Arena, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett. Clinic sponsored by South Everett-Mukilteo Rotary Club and Walgreens, and staffed by Snohomish Health District and Snohomish County Medical Reserve Corps. Adults getting shots may skate free with their children that day at Comcast Community Ice Rink.

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