State suffers record-breaking flu season

Division of Public Health Director, Dr. Karyl Rattay

DOVER — The week before last tallied up 995 lab-confirmed flu cases in the state. The total shatters the previous record of 671 cases in one week recorded during the 2009-2010 season.

Delaware’s Division of Public Health first starting collecting this data about a decade ago.

Six people died from flu-related complications during the same time period the week before last, bringing this flu season’s death toll to 10 people in the state.

The 2017-2018 flu season is now up to 2,966 lab-confirmed cases, DPH reported on Monday.

DPH director Dr. Karyl Rattay said it’s unknown how much worse it’ll get and when it’ll let up.

“This is a particularly intense flu season,” she said. “The flu is difficult to predict so it’s not possible to say in advance precisely when the season will peak or end or how severe it will be. However, it’s likely that there will be significant flu activity for many weeks to come.”

DPH strongly recommends that all residents take as many preventative measures as possible — most importantly, getting vaccinated.

Although there have been some vaccine shortages reported nationwide, Dr. Rattay said this hasn’t been an issue yet in Delaware and there is “adequate supply.”

The effectiveness of the available vaccines this season has been called into question, but remains one of the most important preventative measures, says Dr. Rattay.

“We are waiting to hear more solid information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccine effectiveness, but it does appear that one of the most prevalent viral strains of the season may not be prevented very well with the vaccine,” she said. “It’s still the most important precaution you can take to prevent the flu though.”

Other recommendations being circulated by the DPH are:

• If you are sick, do not going to school or work until you are fever-free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medication.

• Wash your hands frequently – and wipe down frequently touched surfaces with soap and water or disinfecting products.

• Cough or sneeze into tissues or into your inner elbow, if tissues are not available.

Although the season is intense, DPH says “at this point we don’t see the need for a public health emergency to be declared.”

That said, schools and hospitals have been altering procedure slightly to accommodate the severity of the flu season.

Emergency rooms and doctors offices have been seeing a surge in patients seeking treatment, Dr. Rattay said.

“Hospitals are making some small changes in their procedures like triaging people separately, holding off on some elective procedures and some are not allowing young children — the age group most likely to spread infection — to come into the hospital unless necessary,” she said. “Our health system is strained at this point, but they are doing a great job at accommodating and handling the illnesses they are seeing.”

Dr. Rattay also noted that a “large percentage” of students at schools statewide have been absent due to illness. Not all the absenteeism is attributable to the flu, but the surge is most likely connected.

“We sent out letter to all the schools in the state last week with instructions on how to best mitigate the high levels of flu and other viral activity,” she said. “At this point there is no reason for any of the schools to close, but getting out the information on preventative guidance is important.”

Back in September 2009, DPH actively vaccinated students in schools in advance of the expected “H1N1 swine flu pandemic.” DPH doesn’t have plans to reintroduce that idea at the moment though.

“While nothing is off the table in terms of potential strategies to address the intensity of flu activity that we are seeing, at this stage in the season, the best approach remains for parents to contact their child’s pediatrician or primary care provider directly to schedule a flu vaccine,” said Dr. Rattay. “Families with children ages nine and older can also get flu shots at their local pharmacy.”

Underlying health conditions

DPH is also urging older individuals and those with underlying health conditions to be extra cautious as they are the most at-risk.

The six individuals that died the week before last ranged from age 60 to 93 years old, and all had underlying health conditions. These conditions may also render vaccines less effective, said Dr. Rattay. Six of the ten people who’ve died in Delaware this season due to flu-related complications had already been vaccinated.

“People with respiratory conditions, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and cancer patients — especially those undergoing treatment that may impact their immune systems — are all at the greatest risk,” she added.

Individuals who develop influenza-like-illness symptoms are encouraged to contact their primary care provider for treatment recommendations, or visit a walk-in care center, instead of going to the emergency room.

However, someone experiencing serious or life threatening symptoms should go directly to the emergency department. DPH says to be on the lookout for symptoms like:

• Trouble breathing

• Chest pains

• Bluish skin color

• Fever with a rash

• Dizziness

• Severe and persistent vomiting

“Also, if you seem to be getting better, but then suddenly get worse again, you should seek consultation from a medical provider,” said Dr. Rattay.

State and national picture

Influenza-like illness continues to increase in Delaware and across the nation, said DPH. Activity is the highest seen in the last five flu seasons. Additionally, the number of flu-related hospitalizations nationwide is the highest in a decade. In Delaware, the number of hospitalizations as of Feb. 3 is 513 — more than double the 199 at this time last year. To date, people age 65 and older comprise 62.6 percent of the hospitalizations.

While flu-related hospitalizations are disproportionately impacting older Delawareans, infants and children have been most heavily affected by the flu in general, said DPH. Infants and children four years old and below account for 461 of the season’s cases.

Combined with children ages 5 to 9 years (445 cases), they make up more than one-quarter of this season’s flu cases. Children of elementary and middle school ages (5 to 13 years) account for 581 of the season’s cases. Additionally, 167 cases of the flu were confirmed in high school-aged children (ages 14 – 19).

Nationally, there have been 4,486 flu-related deaths in the U.S., 63 of them children.

Residents are urged to first contact their primary care provider for a vaccine, or to visit vaccinefinder.org. Children ages 9 and older can get their flu shot at local pharmacies. Additionally, Delawareans can visit flu.delaware.gov/ or call DPH at 1-800-282-8672 for a list of Public Health Clinics within State Service Centers that are providing the vaccine.

For more information about flu surveillance in Delaware, read the weekly flu report at dhss.delaware.gov/dph/epi/influenzawkly.html.

A person who is deaf, hard-of-hearing, deaf-blind or speech-disabled can call the DPH phone number above by using TTY services. Dial 7-1-1 or 800-232-5460 to type your conversation to a relay operator, who reads your conversation to a hearing person at DPH.

The relay operator types the hearing person’s spoken words back to the TTY user.

To learn more about TTY availability in Delaware, visithttp://delawarerelay.com.

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