With this year’s flu season getting a slow start, state and local health officials are still encouraging people to get their flu shots and allow time to develop an immunity before the coughs and sneezes begin to start.
This time last year, local health officials were seeing the number of Influenza cases skyrocketing, resulting in a limited number of vaccinations and treatment made readily available to local residents.
According to Jill Cairney, marketing specialist at Sampson Regional Medical Center, the local hospital emergency room and urgent care have seen a much smaller number of cases of the flu over the last month, as compared to last year at the same time.
“We have seen a drastic decrease in positive flu tests from last year,” Cairney said. “Last year we saw around 412 cases for the weeks in December and this year, thus far, we have seen six.”
In the week before Christmas last year, SRMC officials said there were 96 positive flu cases at the emergency department. For the same week this year and this past week, there have been no reported cases of the flu.
Maegan Myers, immunization nurse with the Sampson County Health Department, said there have not been many reports of the flu this far at the local health agency. Following last year’s flu epidemic, the strain of the flu that is targeted in the vaccination was changed to better fit what officials expected for this year.
“I feel like this year’s flu vaccine is providing protection against the flu virus this year,” Myers said. “However, it is still early. We may see a spike in flu cases towards the beginning of the new year.”
Epidemiologist Zack Moore, from the state Department of Health and Human Services, also warned just because flu activity hasn’t really started to rise, it doesn’t necessarily mean this year’s season will be less severe.
“Typically, we peak in January or February,” Moore stated in a press release. “But the last three years, we peaked in the week of Christmas. It was kind of unusual to have it once, let alone three times. But this year, we haven’t seen those early indicators.”
There are suggestions for helping contain the virus and keep it from spreading to others. According to Wanda Holden, RN, Infection Control Nurse with SRMC, one of the best ways to prevent the flu is by getting the flu vaccine. While there has been some concern that this year’s vaccine is not as effective due to the mutation of the virus, it will still protect against other strains and will decrease the severity of the illness for those who catch it.
According to Holden, tips for helping prevent the spread of the virus include:
• Hand and respiratory hygiene is the next best step to preventing the spread of flu. Hand washing helps stop the spread of germs. It’s recommended that you wash often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
• It’s also important to remember to disinfect surfaces and objects that may come in contact with flu germs. In the home and workplace, disinfect phones, keyboards, door handles, and other commonly touched surfaces. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to prevent the spread of germs.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and if you are sick, try to stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. It’s also recommended that people wear a face mask to reduce spreading or catching germs.
• If you cough or sneeze, use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose, or direct your cough or sneeze into your elbow. This way, you are less likely to touch a surface and spread germs.
“Sampson Regional Medical Center has hygiene stations located at all main entrances and throughout the hospital to promote hand washing and use of face masks,” Holden advised. “While masks are not required, it is highly encouraged that visitors wear a mask when visiting patients. We also advise visitors to clean their hands at a hand washing station as they enter and exit the facility.”
According to the press release, one of the biggest jobs DHHS epidemiologists have every year is watching the flu numbers on a weekly basis. They report on a public website with information about the number of people who have died and how many people show up at emergency rooms and clinics with flu-like symptoms.
North Carolina’s surveillance system consists of automated information coming from emergency departments to state databases and reports from selected physicians’ offices.
Last year, 218 people were confirmed to have died as a result of flu in North Carolina, reported Anita Valiani, who works with DHHS’ Communicable Disease Branch. But she said the real number was likely higher.
“We know that a lot of people who die because of a flu infection were never tested,” Moore stated in the release. “They die of pneumonia or they die of other things, other underlying conditions that are exacerbated by their flu infection.”
Reach Kristy D. Carter at 910-592-8137, ext. 2588. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd. Like us on Facebook.