By Luke Weir
Healthcare visits for flu-related illness decreased last week for the first time since early January, according to the latest weekly influenza surveillance data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, but flu season is not over yet.
Since the beginning of January, the percent of North Carolina outpatient visits steadily increased from 3 percent to above 10 percent through Feb. 10. Last week, for the first time in over a month, the percent of visits to North Carolina health clinics for influenza-like illnesses dropped to under 8 percent.
Nationally, visits for influenza-like illness decreased about 1 percent last week, with activity reported in all 50 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Influenza epidemiologist Anita Valiani said the drop in flu patients last week does not guarantee an end to the 2017-18 flu season.
Valiani said flu season typically spans from October to as far as May, and the seasonal peak is usually in February.
“Overall, activity is normal—we’re seeing a peak right now, but in the past we have seen flu seasons with double peaks,” Valiani said.
Valiani also said overall vaccine effectiveness this season was down from last year, and even lower for the H3N2 flu strain which has been most active this year, although lower effectiveness does not mean people should stray from immunization, nor is it too late for a flu shot.
“Even if you get the flu after vaccination, it makes your illness shorter-lived and less severe,” Valiani said. “That’s why we say people need to get vaccinated—it equips your body to fight the virus.”
In the state, there have been 200 total flu deaths since the season began on October 1, 2017, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Last season, 218 influenza-associated deaths occurred in the North Carolina during the entirety of the 2016-17 season.
Last week, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System had so many influenza patients they issued a news release limiting visitors at Watauga Medical Center, Cannon Memorial Hospital and The Foley Center.
“For the health and safety of our patients and residents, we must restrict visitation,” Dr. Danielle Mahaffey, Chief Physician Executive for Appalachian Regional Healthcare, said in the news release. “Flu cases have almost reached pandemic levels. We need the community’s help to stop the spread in the High Country.”
Vicki Stevens, director of marketing for Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, said high-risk demographics for developing flu-related complications include children under the age of 5, especially younger than 2, pregnant women, adults older than 65 as well as residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, Stevens said.
Dr. Robert Ellison, director of student health services at Appalachian State University said about 25 percent of clinic visits at the University were flu related during the week of Jan. 27 to Feb. 3.
“Sick students have been very understanding about longer-than-usual waiting room times during the flu illness peak weeks,” Ellison said. “I am extremely fortunate to have such a hard working Student Health Service staff.”
Influenza is the family name for a viral respiratory disease common in winter months. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue, and vomiting and diarrhea in some cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
For up-to-date information about the 2017-18 flu season, visit http://flu.nc.gov/. Weekly information is updated every Thursday.