Revelers may want to ring in the New Year with a distant wave rather than a hug or kiss. The flu is here.
“If you are sick, stay at home,” Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County commissioner of health, said Tuesday. “Sorry, you’re not going to have a fun New Year. But if you’re not feeling well, it won’t be fun anyway.”
County health officials are reporting a surge in the number of confirmed influenza cases. The number of positive tests for influenza more than doubled in one week, increasing 127 percent, according to county Health Department surveillance data. They’re much higher now than at this point in either of the previous two flu seasons.
“We’re seeing very high levels of influenza in our community right now, but it’s really reflective of what we’re seeing across the country,” Burstein said.
New York is one of 36 states reporting geographically widespread flu, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials characterized influenza as widespread, with laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus in 49 counties and New York City.
There were 2,066 laboratory-confirmed influenza reports statewide during the week ending Dec. 20, a 154 percent increase over the previous week, the state Health Department reported.
In addition, the number of patients admitted to hospitals with laboratory-confirmed influenza or hospitalized patients newly diagnosed with the flu was 392, a 61 percent increase over the same period.
But doctors say flu sufferers not experiencing a life-threatening complication such as difficulty breathing or severe dehydration should consider calling their primary care physician or visiting an urgent care center first, before seeking treatment at a hospital emergency department.
Most flu cases can be managed at home with over-the-counter medications, plenty of fluids and rest, said Dr. David Pierce, chief medical officer for Millard Fillmore Suburban and DeGraff Memorial Hospitals
“We’re seeing a high influx of people that are sick with other illnesses and flu,” he said. “So what’s happening is people are waiting for an extended period of time in the emergency department. If you don’t need to be there and you have to go through a four, five or six hour wait just to get a diagnostic test when you really don’t need treatment, it’s a long time to wait.”
To prevent the spread of the flu, Burstein recommends frequent hand washing, coughing into your arm rather than hands and getting a flu vaccine.
“It’s still important to get immunized with the influenza vaccine if you have not already been immunized,” she said.
This year’s flu vaccine was produced based on predictions for what strains of influenza would be most prevalent, Pierce said.
“This year there’s some holes in it. There’s some gaps,” said Pierce. “So we’re seeing a lot of strains of influenza that the vaccine did not cover and that might be why we’re seeing a higher surge this year as opposed to the past several years.”
The majority of flu cases so far this year involve Influenza Type A, which “is not a deadly strain of influenza, it’s not an epidemic strain of influenza like swine flu. It’s general influenza,” Pierce said.
Groups at risk of developing severe complications from influenza include children under 2 and people over 65; those with chronic respiratory diseases; pregnant and postpartum women; and people with compromised immune systems.
Burstein said patients who fall within one of those groups should contact their health care provider as soon as symptoms surface to inquire about a prescription for an influenza antiviral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza, an inhaled therapy approved for people 7 years old and older.
“Those are both in good supply and they’re both good antiviral flu medications,” Burstein said, noting they’re effective only if they are administered within the first 48 hours of the onset of illness.
With students returning to school Monday, health officials expect cases of the flu to continue to rise.
Flu is spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk, health officials said. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby.
“It’s a good time to start talking to your kids about staying away from other children attending school who might be ill and washing their hands as much as possible,” Burstein said.