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Visitor Restrictions Remain in Effect at Appalachian Regional Healthcare Facilities Because Of High Increase in Flu Cases; 217 Patients Diagnosed Locally in 21-Day Period

By Tim Gardner

As of Friday, Feb. 21, visitor restrictions remain effective in the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System hospitals–Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville –to help limit the spread of the flu as the number of flu cases has dramatically increased in recent weeks.

“Flu cases have shown a steady increase as we enter the height of flu season,” said Dr. Danielle Mahaffey, Chief Physician Executive for Appalachian Regional Healthcare System in a press release a few weeks ago. “The flu virus spreads mainly person to person through coughing and sneezing. For the health and safety of our patients, we are asking the community to refrain from visiting to help protect the patients in our facilities.”

Community members may visit if they: Are 18 years or older; Are healthy and do not have the flu or influenza-like illness, and do not live with anyone who has been diagnosed with the flu or influenza-like illness. The medical teams at Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital may make exceptions on a case-by-case basis for siblings of newborn babies and families of hospice or end of life patients.

According to Vicki Stevens, Director of Marketing for the Appalachian Regional Hospital System, there have been 217 persons diagnosed with the flu and treated at its Boone, Linville and outpatient facilities between January 26 through February 15, 2020–a colossal increase from the 33 diagnosed and treated during the first three months of flu season (October 1 through December 31, 2019).

Another 15 North Carolinians have died from flu-related illnesses this 2019-2020 flu season, including a second individual in the 5-to-17 age group, the N.C. Division of Public Health reported Thursday.

A whopping ninety deaths have been reported in North Carolina so far this flu season. Of the 90 who have died so far this flu season, 54 were 65 or older, 22 were ages 50 to 64, 11 were ages 25 to 49, two were ages 5 to 17 and one was age 0 to 4.

However, the number of reported flu cases fell by 18 percent to 5,827 for the week that ended Feb. 15 compared with the previous week, which had a seasonal peak of 7,109 cases.

Eleven deaths were reported for the week that ended Feb. 15, along with four deaths from previous weeks.

Of the additional deaths, 11 were people age 65 or older and three in the 50-64 age range.

No flu epidemic has been declared in the State of North Carolina this flu season. But the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has extended this flu season’s reporting period to the week that ends May 16.

The DHHS cautions that the weekly count does not represent all flu-associated deaths in the state because many could go undiagnosed or unreported. The public-health division does not release a victim’s hometown, county, age or gender for legal privacy reasons.

North Carolina has had 3,569 confirmed cases of influenza B this season, compared with 3,360 cases of influenza A, 1,089 cases of 2009 A(H1N1) and 29 cases of A(H3).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that one reason why this flu season has been rougher is that it’s the first time in almost thirty years of flu seasons (1992-93) that influenza B has been identified more often than influenza A nationally.

The CDC said Thursday that the flu vaccine has been more than 50 percent effective in preventing flu illnesses severe enough for a child to see a doctor. That effectiveness rate is for the influenza A and B flu strains.

Vaccines against many infectious diseases aren’t considered successful unless they are at least 90% effective. But flu is particularly challenging, partly because the virus can so quickly change.

Health officials recommend that those age 6 months and older get a flu vaccination. Besides the elderly, other vulnerable groups are children younger than 5, pregnant women, people with preexisting medical conditions, and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care centers.

It has been a rough flu season for children, but early signs suggest the vaccine is working well.

The vaccine has been more than 5o percent effective in preventing flu illness severe enough to send a child to a doctor, officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

Medical experts consider that reasonably good.

The vaccines are made each year to protect against three or four different kinds of the flu virus. The ingredients are based on predictions of what strains will make people sick the following winter. It doesn’t always work out.

This flu season has featured two waves, each dominated by a different virus. Both of those flu bugs are considered dangerous to children but tend not to be as dangerous to the elderly.

Health officials became concerned when it became clear that the vaccine didn’t match the Type B flu strain that ended up causing most early-season illnesses.

And the vaccine has been about 55 percent effective among kids against the Type A strain that has caused a second wave of flu illnesses.

Vaccines against many infectious diseases aren’t considered successful unless they are at least 90 percent effective. But flu is particularly hard to combat and treat as the virus can so quickly change. Overall, flu vaccine averages around 40 percent.

This season, the vaccine has been 45 percent effective against both types of flu across all ages. That can change as the flu season progresses. Updated vaccine effectiveness numbers are expected later this year.

One troubling finding: This season’s vaccine has been virtually ineffective vs. the Type A virus in younger adults. The reason is a mystery but may change as more data is released.

U.S. health officials have counted 92 child flu deaths this year, up from the same time last year but fewer than were counted by this point in 2018. In all, the CDC estimates at least 14,000 Americans have died of the flu this season.