Flu virus nothing to sneeze at: Number of sick Delawareans skyrockets

DOVER — A flu outbreak has taken flight in Delaware this winter with the number of people experiencing influenza-like illness reachi

Division of Public Health Director, Dr. Karyl Rattay

ng the highest level over the last five flu seasons.

It follows a national trend of higher rates of flu cases across the country this winter, as those affected scramble for hospitals and doctor’s appointments.

“Right now, one of the biggest health threats we are facing (nationally) is influenza,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flu is incredibly complex and difficult to predict, and this season is a somber reminder of why flu is one of the world’s greatest public health challenges and why we at CDC focus so intensely on efforts to fight flu.

“In the past week, we have seen increased influenza-like illness activity, more hospitalizations, and tragically, more flu associated deaths in children and adults. And as of this week, overall hospitalizations are now the highest we’ve seen. even higher than the 2014-’15, our previous high season.”

Delaware is following the national trend as the number of laboratory-confirmed flu cases throughout the state is skyrocketing, according to the Division of Public Health (DPH), with one-week totals now surpassing the highest single-week totals from last flu season.

The DPH reported that there were 650 lab-confirmed flu cases recorded in the state between Jan. 21 and Jan. 27, while the highest single-week total during last flu season was 571.

The most recent weekly number brings the total number of flu cases to 1,950 for the 2017-2018 season.

An 82-year-old Sussex County man became the fourth person to die of flu-related complications in Delaware this season. The man, who had underlying health conditions, passed away last week at a local hospital.

Of the four flu deaths in Delaware this season, two have been Sussex County residents and two have been from New Castle County.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of those who have passed away from flu-related complications,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the DPH. “As long as flu viruses are still circulating, it is not too late to get a flu vaccine.

“It is difficult to tell when flu season will peak, but all signs indicate we are likely to continue to see elevated levels of flu activity for weeks to come.”

Individuals who develop influenza-like symptoms are encouraged to contact their primary care provider for treatment recommendations or visit a walk-in care center.

The DPH said people should only go to the emergency room if they are extremely ill with symptoms such as trouble breathing, bluish skin color, fever with a rash, dizziness or severe or persistent vomiting.

The number of flu-related hospitalizations nationwide is the highest it has been in a decade.

In Delaware, a total of 398 people has been hospitalized as of Jan. 27, more than double last year’s total of 158 for the same timeframe.

DPH officials said that while hospitalizations are hitting the elderly particularly hard, infants and children have been most heavily affected by the recent surge in Delaware flu cases in general.

Infants and children ages birth- to 4-years-old account for 277 of the season’s cases. Combined with children ages 5 to 9 years (221 cases), they make up one-quarter of this season’s flu cases.

Children of elementary and middle school ages (5 to 13 years) account for 376 of the season’s cases. When those of high school age are added in, the overall number of school-age children affected by the flu this season rises to 400.

DPH has been contacted by schools concerned about large numbers of student absences due to widespread flu activity.

The Division is preparing a letter with recommendations on how to prevent and reduce the spread of the influenza virus that will be sent to schools and child care centers throughout the state.

Nationally, according to the CDC, 53 children have died of the flu this season. Of the children who died, about half had no underlying medical conditions.

Dr. Schuchat said to be on the lookout for some warning signs in children.

“In general, worrisome signs are a very high persisting fever, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat or shallow rapid breathing, or significant tiredness or confusion,” she said. “In theory, young children with those kind of symptoms are going to be difficult to assess so we really do think a call to the pediatrician or nurse hotline is very important.”

With the increasing number of flu cases, DPH is reminding Delawareans that they should still try to get a flu vaccine if they have not already done so because there is no telling how long this flu season will last.

“The flu season is incredibly difficult to predict, (they) can range from 11 to 20 weeks,” Dr. Schuchat said. “The peak is at different points in different years and so this season we do not know if we have hit the peak yet.

“Many of the measurements are still going up. but we’re at week 10 and some seasons go to 20 weeks. I would say the timing is not particularly unusual, what is unusual is the hospitalizations are greater than we’ve been seeing in the past several years.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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