By Tim Gardner
The number of flu cases has surged to high levels locally and across North Carolina in the past few weeks, although the number of those for the whole state last week dropped from the previous week, according to figures released Thursday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The flu season typically runs from Oct. 1 through March 31, although it can sometimes last into May. It usually peaks during the coldest months, typically between January and March.
The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, headquartered in Boone, reported on Thursday that 369 individuals have tested positive for the flu at their facilities since Oct. 1, 2018. That’s a colossal increase of 298 persons in the past 23 days. As of Jan. 30, 2019, just 71persons had been treated for the flu at an ARHS facility this flu season.
The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has placed restrictions on visits to patients in its facilities to limit the spread of the disease.
According to its Director of Marketing Vicki 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 at Watauga Medical Center in Boone, Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville and The Foley Center (At Chesnut Ridge) in Blowing Rock 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 Blue Ridge Hospital in another North Carolina Mountain County (Mitchell) also has placed limits on visits to patients because of the flu raging in that area.
Additionally, Ashe County Schools were closed today last Friday for students and teachers “due to the increase in the flu outbreak at all schools,” according to the school system’s web site.
Other nearby public schools that closed recently due to the flu includes those in Johnson County, TN and Washington County, TN.
State data shows that the flu has been surging for most of the past month-and-a-half, according to test results reported by the state’s seven largest hospital networks. Positive test results for the flu virus even surged from 180 cases in that time span to a whopping 880 people in the week ending Feb. 2.
The state public-health division reported that the number of flu-like cases last week was at 6,838, down from a peak of 7,516 from the week that ended Feb. 9. From those test results, the A (subtype unknown) flu virus has been the dominant form to date with 4,106 of the 5,222 confirmed positive cases, followed by 576 of A/H3, 492 of A(H1), and 48 of B.
Deaths from the flu in the state are on the rise as well.
Thirteen more people in North Carolina died from the influenza virus in the last reporting week, bringing the total deaths so far this flu season to 68.
Three additional victims died in a previous week also were added, bringing the total for the reporting period to 16.
Ten of the 16 victims were ages 65 and older, along with three in the 50-to-64 age group and three in the 25-to-49 age group.
Of all deaths this flu season to date, 48 of the victims were ages 65 or older, 13 were in the 50-to-64 age group and seven in the 25-to-49 age group.
The deaths were reported by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which cautioned that the total does not represent all flu-related deaths in the state because many may not be reported or even diagnosed. To protect patient privacy, the state health department does not indicate which counties the deaths occurred in.
For the same time period, there were 212 deaths in the 2017-18 flu season (the worst for flu in recent memory), 50 deaths in 2016-17, three deaths in 2015-16, 162 deaths in 2014-15 and 66 deaths in 2013-14.
391 people died in North Carolina from the virus or complications from it during the 2017-18 flu season.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that there is still time to get vaccinated.
“Flu will be circulating, and infection rates will likely remain high at least for the next several weeks,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore, in the statement. “Getting vaccinated now is the best way to protect yourself and those you come in contact with.”
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.
Medical professional maintain that everyone should use precautions to protect against the spread of flu and other viruses, including: Washing hands frequently, preferably with soap and water or an approved hand sanitizer; Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then discard the tissue promptly; and if you are sick with flu, staying home until you have been fever-free for at least 24 hours.