The spread of the flu across the United States appears to have slowed in some areas, but officials won’t know for weeks whether the outbreak has peaked. According to reports by the Centers for Disease Control, the only states that aren’t reporting widespread flu activity are California, Hawaii, and Mississippi.
“Widespread” means that more than 50 percent of geographic regions in a state–counties, for example–are reporting flu activity. The term addresses the spread of the flu, not its severity.
“Bottom line, it’s flu season,” Dr. Thomas Frieden director of the CDC told reporters. Flu activity is elevated in most of the United States, he said, and “it may be decreasing in some areas, but that’s hard to predict . . . influenza activity ebbs and flows.”
According to the CDC, the number of children’s deaths associated with influenza rose by two, totaling 20 deaths of people under the age of 18 since the flu outbreak began. While the CDC does not count the number of adult deaths related to the flu, some states do, and that data suggests dozens have died.
Although California isn’t quite in the danger zone, doctors and public health officials are urging residents to get a flu shot to reduce their risk of contracting a serious flu virus. In the past several weeks, there has been a marked increase in emergency department visits in Los Angeles County for respiratory illness (fever, cough, or sore throat). The prevalence has greatly increased over this time to the highest levels recorded at the end of December compared to the previous three years; influenza has been gradually increasing. So far one flu-related death has been reported in the county.
Influenza has claimed two lives in Orange County. A 55-year-old La Habra man, became the second person in Orange County to succumb to flu-related causes this season, said Deanne Thompson of the Orange County Health Care. “There are no flu vaccine shortages in the region, as is the case elsewhere in the nation, so residents are encouraged to get vaccinated. If people get vaccinated now, there’s still time to be protected before the peak of the flu season, but people should hurry,” Thompson said.
Dr. Philip Robinson, the medical director of infection prevention at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Orange County, agreed. “We have seen an uptick in the last 11 days, treating 11 people with influenza since New Year’s Day though none of them have been what you would call serious cases.”
Robinson encouraged Californians to get flu shots and discounted the possibility that getting a shot could make one sick.
“It is not possible to get influenza from getting a flu shot,” Robinson said. “The shot stimulates the immune system, but it takes about two weeks to become effective. It’s possible to get sick in the meantime,” Robinson said.
According to the CDC, getting the shot can increase the odds of avoiding the flu up to 62 percent, but even if one gets the flu after getting the shot the vaccine will ensure that symptoms are milder.
The best way to avoid getting the flu is washing hands frequently, Robinson said. “Influenza gets through by touching your mouth, eyes and nose. Sick people should self-isolate. Stay home if you’re sick,” Robinson said.
Ellen Driscoll, director of public relations at Antelope Valley Hospital, said the hospital is experiencing relatively normal levels of influenza patients. “This is peak season for us anyway, so I can’t say that there are more cases than there were last year. We are pretty much in line with what is normal,” said Driscoll. “We haven’t had any hospitalizations or deaths, and we do have flu vaccines available, but there also hasn’t been an unusually high amount of patients seeking those either. Our experience has been pretty standard.”
Rekha Murthy, director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai, said: “We are having a notably early flu season, and while we don’t know yet how bad it will get, the time is now to get your flu vaccine.”
Murthy says Cedars-Sinai physicians started seeing an increase in flu patients about two weeks ago, but they are seeing typical influenza strains A and B that are matched to this year’s vaccine. Murthy says Cedars-Sinai also is being proactive in the battle by giving flu shots to all in-patients who have not yet received the vaccine.
According to the CDC, the highest priority groups for vaccination are children under 5, especially those under 2; pregnant women; people ages 65 or older; people who are morbidly obese; children and adolescents receiving long-term aspirin therapy; people with chronic diseases such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or asthma; those with weakened immune systems; and healthcare workers.
Information on obtaining a flu shot is available online at http://findaflushot.com or http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/ip/flu/FluLocatorMain.htm
CNN and City News Service contributed to this article.