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Flu Death Total Climbs to 63 in North Carolina as Appalachian Regional Hospital System Puts Visitor Restrictions in Effect and Ashe County Closes All Schools and Activities Until Feb. 10

By Tim Gardner

Nine more North Carolinians have died during the current 2019-2020 flu season, increasing the total to 63, the N.C. Division of Public Health officials said in their weekly flu report Thursday.

Five deaths were reported for the week that ended Feb. 1, along with four deaths from previous weeks.

Of the additional deaths, six were for individuals ages 65 and older, along with three ages 50 to 64.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services cautions the weekly report count does not represent all flu-associated deaths in the state because many go undiagnosed or unreported. The division does not release a victim’s hometown, county, age or gender for legal privacy reasons.

According to the Division of Public Health, of the 63 who have died in this season to date, 37 were 65 or older, 15 were ages 50 to 64, 10 were ages 25 to 49 and one was ages 5 to 17.

North Carolina still has not been listed among the 19 states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, as reporting high levels of flu.

However, the Boone-based Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has implemented visitor restrictions at Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville to help limit the spread of flu.

“Flu cases have shown a steady increase as we enter the height of flu season,” said Dr. Danielle Mahaffey, Chief Physician Executive for Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. “The flu virus spreads mainly person to person through coughing and sneezing. For the health and safety of our patients, we are asking the community to refrain from visiting to help protect the patients in our facilities.”

Community members may visit if they:

Are 18 years or older; Are healthy and do not have the flu or an influenza-like illness; and do not live with anyone who has been diagnosed with the flu or influenza-like illness.

The medical teams at Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital may make exceptions on a case-by-case basis for siblings of newborn babies and families of hospice or end of life patients.

According to Vicki Stevens, Director of Marketing for the Appalachian Regional Hospital System, there have been 139 persons diagnosed with the flu and treated at its Boone and Linville facilities between January 1 through January 25, 2020 (the latest figures available)–a sharp increase from the 33 diagnosed and treated during the first three months of flu season (October 1 through December 31, 2019).

And a local school system has closed schools because of the flu in its county. Ashe County Schools will be closed for both students and staff beginning Friday, Feb. 7 in order to complete deep cleansing of the facilities due to the current flu outbreak.

Students and staff will return to school on Feb. 10.

Sports activities at any of the facilities in the county will also be suspended during this time to help prevent the spread of the flu in Ashe County.

Schools Superintendent Phyllis Yates released the following statement on Feb. 6 explaining the school district’s plan:

“Due to the increase in the outbreak of flu at all schools, Ashe County Schools will be closed Friday, February 7, for students and staff. Also, we will not have any sports activities in our schools Thursday night-Sunday, including anything with Parks and Recs. Having games in our facilities defeats the purpose of stopping the spread of flu. Sports activities outside the county are allowed if that county still wants to host the event knowing our flu situation.

“Deep cleans and disinfecting will be performed at all schools to help stop the spread of flu germs. I’ve stayed in close contact with our local health department and we are doing the right things to help curb this epidemic.

“Please take this three-day opportunity to help us prevent the spread of flu. If you are sick or have flu-like symptoms, talk to your health-care provider and stay home to avoid spreading it to others. It is not too late to get a flu shot—see your family doctor, go to the health department or contact your local drug store. It does take up to two weeks to be fully protected from the flu virus after being vaccinated. To help control the spread of influenza in your community, stay home and keep sick children home until their fever has been gone for 24 hours.

“Take care and let’s hope by Monday everyone is feeling much better and that we can get back into our daily routines.”

The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that one reason why the flu season has been more virulent this time is because it’s the first time since 1992-1993 that influenza B has been identified more often than influenza A nationally.

In North Carolina, there have been 2,815 confirmed cases of influenza B, compared with 2,033 influenza A, 722 of 2009 A(H1N1) and 28 of A(H3).

According to medical professionals, Influenza A is typically more severe, particularly among older adults or people with underlying medical problems, while Influenza B tends to be less severe and usually affects children more than adults.

“As the flu shifts to influenza A, expect the severity to increase, especially among older adults or those with underlying health problems,” A NCDC spokesman stated.

Studies show that antiviral drugs used to treat flu work best when taken as soon as possible after the start of flu-like symptoms, but ideally within 2 days of starting symptoms. However, flu vaccine is recommended for anyone age 6 months and older.

The traditional flu season runs from Oct. 1 through March 31, though the flu has lingered well into April and May during some seasons.

For the 2019-20 flu season, DHHS extended the reporting period to be completed with the week that ends May 16.

There was a seasonal peak of 5,729 flu-like cases reported in N.C. last week, up from 4,716 during the week that ended Jan. 25 and 4,452 during the week that ended Jan. 18.

At this time of the flu seasons, there were 40 deaths in 2018-19, 177 in 2017-18, 25 in 2016-17, two in 2015-16, 155 in 2014-15 and 61 in 2013-14.

Altogether, there were 208 flu-related deaths in the 2018-19 season for N.C., as well as 391 in 2017-18, 218 in 2016-17, 60 in 2015-16, 219 in 2014-15 and 107 in 2013-14.

Besides the elderly, other vulnerable groups are children younger than 5, pregnant women, people with pre-existing medical conditions, and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care centers.