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In a bad flu season, signs the worst may be over

Like a fever that finally breaks, the flu's grip on Western New York appears to have loosened – a bit.

Is the worst over for the 2017-2018 season?


The rate of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases dropped in the week ending Feb. 17 in several regions of New York State, including the Buffalo area, as did the percent of weekly emergency department visits.

But the positive signs weren't seen across the board in the state. Don't draw any firm conclusions yet.

"It's encouraging, but I tell my staff to hold onto their seats. We might still be in for more of a ride," said Dr. Kevin T. Shiley, medical director of infection prevention and control at the Catholic Health system.

Public health authorities can’t count every case of flu.

Instead, they track the spread and level of sickness by other means, such as testing certain patients, and examining reports of visits to outpatient centers and emergency departments for influenza-like illness.

One key measure is the number of flu cases confirmed by laboratory testing per 100,000 people in the population. In Western New York, that rate declined from 92 cases per 100,000 in the week ending Feb. 10 to 89.9 in the week ending Feb. 17, based on the latest data from the state Health Department.

Central New York also experienced a decline from 169.4 cases per 100,000 to 150.6.

Statewide, during the week ending Feb. 17, 2,160 patients were hospitalized with influenza, a 13 percent decrease from the previous week.

And, across the nation, the portion of patients visiting a network of outpatient health care providers examined to track flu declined to 6.4 percent in the week ending Feb. 17, from what had been a peak of 7.4 percent in the two previous weeks, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Is all this a sign of the flu on the decline, a plateau or a brief downturn in what's been a severe season?

It's unclear from the statistics released Friday by the state. Flu surveillance is a challenge, and not everyone who gets sick goes to a doctor or hospital.

Catholic Health – which includes Mercy, Sisters and Kenmore Mercy hospitals – offers a perspective that helps broaden the picture.

"We're still seeing a fair number of people with influenza-like illness coming in and being tested. There are decent volumes in the emergency room, but it seems to be trickling down," Shiley said.

"The sense is we are seeing the beginning of a decline, but you want to see what happens over a few more weeks before knowing for sure," he said.

"You can get waxing and waning weeks," he said.

There is no question that this has been a tough flu season.

The percentage of patients testing positive for influenza at Catholic Health reached 22 percent – far higher than the approximately 15 percent rate last year.

The number of patients being tested at the system's hospitals and outpatient centers has held steady the past four weeks at around 650 a week.

Since 2011, the number of patients coming into the hospital system's emergency rooms with influenza-like symptoms, including fever and cough, over a month period peaked at 1,000 cases in the severe 2014-2015 season.

Contrast that with the 1,625 influenza-like visits Catholic Health expects for the month of February this year.

"We've seen a fair amount of people hospitalized with the flu compared to prior years, as well as five or six people in critical care. That may not seem like many, but it's actually significant for flu and critical care," Shiley said.

Some of the other recent highlights from the state's weekly influenza report and other sources:


There have been 16,578 people statewide hospitalized with the flu so far this season. That compares with 12,912 in 2016-17; 9,013 in 2015-16; and 11,624 in 2014-15.

Pharmacist vaccinations:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced an extension of an emergency executive order that allows pharmacists to administer flu vaccines to children ages 2 to 18. The order suspends a state regulation that prohibits pharmacists from vaccinating people under 18.

Numbers: Flu remains widespread in New York for the 11th consecutive week, with 18,258 laboratory-confirmed reports during the week ending Feb. 17, a 9 percent increase over the week before.

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