By Tim Gardner
North Carolina’s number of flu-related deaths has reached 135, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday. That’s a huge spike of sixteen deaths since last reported by the High Country Press only a week ago (March 8).
A spokesperson from the NCDHHS reported that 85 of the victims (deaths) were age 65 or older; 47 were between the ages of 18 and 65; and 3 were age 17 and under.
The agency does not provide details, such as name of the deceased, age, gender or county of residence, to protect the privacy of the families affected.
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, headquartered in Boone, reported Friday morning that 613 individuals have tested positive for the flu at their facilities since the 2018-19 flu season began. That number represents 98 more patients who have been diagnosed with the flu during the past seven days—a huge average of 14 per day.
The 613 flu cases also represents a colossal hike of 542 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.
However, only 16 of those 613 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 local statistics were provided by Vicki Stevens, the hospital system’s Marketing Director.
The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System 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.
The 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 noted.
She 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.
The NC Department of Health and Human Services has not labeled the surge in flu cases as a state-wide epidemic, but its officials are worried that a continued large increase in cases could lead to that undesired determination. Still, its officials have indicated that is unlikely.
Despite the lingering flu activity this year, the NCDHHS notes that last flu season (2017-2018) was much rougher.
During that flu season, almost 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 quite alarming, and health officials continue to emphasize that it is not too late to get a flu shot.
Flu has also raged in other sections of the nation. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 26.3 million people have caught the flu in America since the 2018-19 flu season began.
The CDC also reported that approximately 350,000 flu hospitalizations and more than 31,000 flu deaths have occurred across the country so far this season.
The CDC notes that the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher because not all flu-related deaths are detected or reported.
The CDC said “widespread influenza activity” has been reported in 48 states.
The highest level of flu activity by states has been reported in North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina and Alaska.
Widespread flu activity is defined as outbreaks in at least half of the regions of a state.
The H1N1 virus strain has dominated this season. The H3N2 strain, which generally produces more severe flu cases, hit the Southeast region of the United States in two waves.
The CDCP highly 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.