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Flu Deaths Climb to 165 in North Carolina But Diagnosed Cases Decline as Local Hospitals Lift Visiting Restrictions

By Tim Gardner

North Carolina’s number of flu-related deaths has reached 165, the latest report from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services released on Thursday revealed. That number includes an increase of 30 deaths since last reported by the High Country Press on March 15.

Eight died in the week from March 17-23. The agency does not provide details, such as name of the deceased, exact age, gender or county of residence, to protect the privacy of the families affected.

Statewide, officials say more than 8,000 people have tested positive for influenza since September 30, 2018. However, they reported that there has been a decline in the number of flu cases the past few weeks.

Flu season officially begins on September 30 each year. It peaks in February and March and officially ends on May 18.

The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, based in Boone, reported Thursday that 609 have tested positive for the flu at their facilities since the 2018-19 flu season began. However, only 27 of those patients have been hospitalized at Watauga Medical Center in Boone or Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, both of which are operated by the ARHS.

Due to the recent decline in flu cases, the ARHS has lifted restrictions it had placed several weeks ago on visits to patients in its hospitals to limit the spread of the disease. Its officials had asked that all persons under age 18 as well as those who are sick or have been exposed to respiratory illness to refrain from visiting friends or family hospitalized at either of its facilities as a result of the continued increase in flu and influenza-like illnesses. But regular hospital visit guidelines are back in place. What this means for visitors includes:

*Visitors 18 years and younger are allowed at all ARHS facilities.

*Adult visitors and visitors 18 years and under should be free from fever, cough, colds or stomach virus symptoms.

*Visitors who display flu-like symptoms may be asked not to visit.

*Visitors must wash or sanitize their hands before, during and after each visit.

The NCDHHS notes that last flu season (2017-2018) was much rougher as almost 400 deaths in North Carolina were attributed to the flu then, the highest death toll in a single flu season since state officials began publicly reporting flu deaths in 2009.

Because communicable diseases can have so much impact on the population, the surveillance and control of such diseases is an important part of protecting the public’s health. The Communicable Disease Branch of the Division of Public Health primarily deals with infectious diseases that are reportable by law to the state health department, as well as a few other communicable diseases of public health significance, such as influenza, norovirus infection and certain healthcare-associated infections.

The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 26 million people have caught the flu in America since the 2018-19 flu season began.

The CDCP also reported that 350,000 –plus flu hospitalizations and 31,000-plus flu deaths have occurred in this country so far this season.

The organization also notes that the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher because not all flu-related deaths are detected or reported.

The CDCP still recommends that everyone 6 months old and older receive a vaccination against the flu. Groups of people particularly vulnerable to the flu are adults over age 65, children under 5, pregnant women, those with pre-existing health conditions, and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Besides reducing the risk of infection, vaccination against the flu can make the illness milder for those who do get sick and reduces the risk of more serious outcomes. Flu vaccinations are available at hospitals, pharmacies, private medical offices and local health departments.