Laboratory-confirmed cases of flu continue to increase in Erie County, a sign of the severity of this year's influenza season, public health officials reported Tuesday.
The flu season has been driven by type A (H3N2), a flu strain that can lead to more severe illness with more hospitalizations and deaths compared to other flu virus strains. Flu-related hospitalizations in Erie County remain extremely high.
“The flu is highly contagious and can cause serious respiratory illness. Now is the time to get a flu vaccine if you have not already been immunized this season,” Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, said in a statement.
“Erie County’s flu seasons lasts well into the spring, so we still have a few months of potentially prevalent disease on our community," she said.
Health officials say the influenza vaccine, although not 100 percent effective, is the best way to prevent the flu. By getting immunized, people also reduce the risk of spreading the flu to others, especially those at high risk of such complications as pneumonia or death, and may reduce the severity of symptoms if they get the flu.
The easiest additional flu prevention measure is good personal hygiene — hand-washing, covering the mouth when coughing, staying home if sick.
Burstein said influenza vaccine remains in good supply at local pharmacies if not available from a physician's office or urgent care facility. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently signed an executive order allowing pharmacists to administer flu vaccines to children ages 2 to 18 to increase vaccine accessibility.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last week said in the agency's latest national flu update that data indicate influenza activity is still on the rise and may be on track to beat some recent records.
"Levels of influenza-like-illness across the country are now as high as we observed at the peak of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. This doesn’t mean that we are having a pandemic, just that levels of influenza-like-illness are as high as what we saw during the peak of H1N1," she said. "That’s a signal of how very intense this flu season has been."
The influenza-like illness measure is based on outpatient and emergency department visits. Hospitalizations for flu in the United States are now significantly higher than what were seen for this time of year since the CDC began tracking the data in 2010.
Levels of pneumonia and influenza deaths are consistent with similar severe years, she said, but hospitalizations have shown no signs of leveling off yet.