Flu rages throughout U.S.

BUCKHANNON — The speaker at Tuesday’s Buckhannon Rotary Club warned members that this year’s influenza is nothing to scoff — or sneeze — at.

Registered nurse Peggy Cohen, director of infection prevention and employee health at WVU Medicine St. Joseph’s Hospital, said the percentage of people throughout the United States — and in West Virginia — who have visited outpatient health care providers with influenza-like illnesses during the 2017-2018 flu season is well above baseline.

Baseline is a collection of data from previous years that serves as a basis for comparison, Cohen said.

While the national baseline of outpatient visits due to influenza-like illness is 2.2 percent, there were 5.8 percent of outpatient visits attributed to influenza-like illness during the 2017-2018 flu season, which began Oct. 1, 2017. An influenza-like illness, or ILI, is defined as a condition involving a fever of 100 degrees or higher, cough and/or sore throat.

In West Virginia, the percentage of patient visits for influenza-like illnesses during the 2017-2018 was 3.9 percent, significantly higher than the 2 percent baseline for the state.

“We’re way above the past several years of where we’ve been,” said Cohen, who’s worked as a nurse since 1995. “The total positive [number of cases] reported in West Virginia is around 1,050. It’s spiked and it’s widespread in our state.”

In this context, “widespread” means there are outbreaks of influenza or increases in influenza-like illnesses and recent laboratory-confirmed influenza in at least half the regions of the state, Cohen said.

To stop the spread of the flu, St. Joseph’s Hospital has amended its visitor policy to protect patients, according to a Jan. 18 press release. Visitors are now limited to two people per patient; children under age 12 are discouraged from visiting; and only the husband, significant other or labor coach may visit patients in the obstetrics department.

The prevalent strain of this year’s flu — H3N2 — is included in the quadrivalent flu vaccine offered at St. Joseph’s Hospital and its drive-by clinics, Cohen said.

And although the quadrivalent vaccine is only about 30 percent effective, Cohen highly recommends that people get vaccinated. Even if a flu vaccine does not prevent infection, it typically lessens the severity of a patient’s symptoms, Cohen said.

“The vaccine, if you get it, it’s not 100 percent effective, but it’s going to lessen the severity of the symptoms,” she said. “The key is that prevents you from getting those severe symptoms of the flu and dying. People will say, ‘It’s only 10 percent effective,’ or ‘It’s only 30 percent effective,’ but it can prevent you from dying. A lot of the deaths we’ve seen in the adults and the children, it looks like from the stories I’ve read, that a lot of them were not vaccinated.

“In Pennsylvania, we had a 21-year-old who was very healthy, young guy, body builder that got it and died, and he didn’t have the vaccine,” she added.

In fact, it’s estimated that between 291,000 and 646,000 people die annually from seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses.

So, what exactly is the flu and how do you know if you have it? The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by an influenza virus that affects the nose, throat and sometimes lungs, Cohen said. It spreads through tiny droplets when people sneeze, cough or talk.

Only a test can confirm if a patient is positive for the flu, but common symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and muscle or body aches. Stomachaches and vomiting can sometimes manifest as flu symptoms, but are far less common, Cohen said.

Cohen said people infected with the virus may be able to spread it before their symptoms surface, but patients are the most contagious during the first three to four days of being ill.

“Healthy adults may be able to infect others one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick,” Cohen said.

In fact, it’s only safe for a patient to return to work or other public areas 24 hours after their fever ends, without the help of fever-reducing medicines.

Although anyone can contract the flu, those at highest risk for it include people 65 years and older; people of any age with chronic medical conditions; pregnant women; and young children.

To prevent the flu, take the following measures: get a flu vaccine annually, avoid sick people, cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to stop the spread of germs.

Finally, wash your hands frequently.

“You’re supposed to wash your hands for a full 20 seconds, and most people don’t do that,” Cohen said. “You should be able to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while you’re washing your hands.”

For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/flu.

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