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Flu Deaths Continue to Climb State-Wide as Local Cases Surge

By Tim Gardner

North Carolina’s number of flu-related deaths has reached 119, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday.

A total of 11 people died from the flu during the week that ended March 2, and an additional 10 victims were added to totals from previous weeks.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported that for the first time this year, a child who was 4 or younger died from a flu-related illness last week. Also among the dead was a child between 5 and 17 as well as a young person between 18 and 24.

So far, 73 of the victims were ages 65 or older.

Officials from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services cautioned that the total number of deaths does not represent all flu-related deaths in the state because many may not be reported or even diagnosed. And to protect patient privacy, the state health department does not indicate which counties the deaths occurred in.

Flu season starts in late September and peaks in February and March. Flu season officially ends May 18.

During the 2017-18 flu season, nearly 400 deaths in North Carolina were attributed to the flu, the highest death toll in a single flu season since state officials began publicly reporting flu deaths in 2009.

More than a year ago, on Feb. 3, 2018, total flu deaths in the state were already at 140. While this year’s numbers aren’t as high, they are still alarming, and health officials continue to emphasize that it is not too late to get a flu shot.

The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, headquartered in Boone, reported Friday morning that 515 individuals have tested positive for the flu at their facilities since the 2018-19 flu season began on Oct. 1, 2018. That number represents a whopping 146 more patients who have been diagnosed with the flu during the past thirteen days–an average of more than 11 per day.

On Feb. 22, the ARHS reported that 369 had tested positive for the flu at their facilities.

The 515 flu cases also represents a colossal hike of 444 more who have tested positive for the flu at an ARHS facility since Jan. 30, when only 71 had been diagnosed with the infectious disease. The average daily increase since Jan. 30 (36 days) is more than 12 patients per day.

However, only 14 of those 515 local flu patents have been hospitalized at Watauga Medical Center in Boone or Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, both of which are operated by the ARHS.

These statistics were provided by Vicki Stevens, the hospital system’s Marketing Director.

The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, the leader for healthcare in the North Carolina High Country, is comprised of two hospitals and an inpatient care facilities–Watauga Medical Center, Cannon Memorial Hospital and The Foley Center at Chesnut Ridge in Blowing Rock. The hospital system also includes more than a dozen medical practices and a rehabilitation facility with a skilled nursing care wing.

The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has placed restrictions on visits to patients in its hospitals to limit the spread of the disease.

According to Stevens, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System is asking 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.

Stevens added that medical teams at each facility may make exceptions for visitors on a case-by-case basis for siblings of newborn babies and families of Hospice or end of life patients.

Additionally, all allowed visitors must wear a facial mask upon entering a patient’s room.

A statement about the visitation limits currently posted on the healthcare system’s web site reads: “We know that limiting visitation is an inconvenience for families with patients in the hospital. However, it is vital that we take every precaution to protect our patients, staff and visitors. ARHS infection control specialists will continue to monitor influenza activity with the Health Department and will assess when restrictions can be lifted.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests 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.

In addition to reducing the risk of infection, vaccination against the flu can make 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, some federally qualified health care centers and local health departments.