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Flu widespread, but reports here mixed

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Influenza is widespread in Virginia, the state health department reports, but how bad it is locally is open to interpretation.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) classifies flu as widespread “when more than half the regions in the state are seeing outbreaks,” said Sharon Ortiz-Garcia, the Henry-Martinsville Health Department’s epidemiologist.

As of Jan. 11, the latest date for which information was available, outbreaks or increases in influenza cases and recent laboratory-confirmed flu cases had been reported in at least half the state’s regions, Ortiz-Garcia said.

VDH data shows between 3 percent and 41?2 percent of patient visits to hospital emergency departments and urgent care centers statewide during the week of Jan. 11 were for flu-like illnesses.

David Trump, a VDH epidemiologist, said the state has seen one pediatric death from flu — a child from Northern Virginia in the 0-4 age group.

Virginia doesn’t report adult flu-related deaths.

Trump said most people seeking treatment are young to middle-aged. The rates of hospital?urgent care visits for people ages 65 and older are low, he said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website shows flu being widespread in Virginia and all surrounding states.

That doesn’t necessarily mean flu is an epidemic locally or within the West Piedmont Health District, which includes Martinsville, Henry and Patrick counties, according to Ortiz-Garcia.

“When we talk about flu activity levels, flu surveillance is not designed” to monitor everyone who has the disease, she said, because relatively few people actually have their flu cases diagnosed or confirmed in a lab.

The health department works with those confirmed cases to compile data from week to week, Ortiz-Garcia said.

“When we do flu surveillance, we count the number (of cases) and types,” she added.

According to a document released by the state health department, Influenza A (H1N1) is the predominant strain currently circulating in the state. Ortiz-Garcia said other versions circulating are H3N2 and Influenza B.

“The flu vaccine that we have available covers all (three) of them,” Ortiz-Garcia said.

Since mid-December, the VDH has reported “a steady increase” in visits for influenza-like illness to emergency departments and urgent care centers in all regions of the state, according to the VDH release.

Hospital visits have increased among all age groups, but most notably among children and younger adults, the release said.

In local schools, however, respiratory flu cases have not been the biggest problem, according to Vicky Utt, health coordinator for Martinsville City Schools. Utt said there were few cases of flu recently or before the winter break. However, cases of norovirus, commonly called “stomach flu,” were much more common.

Before the break, schools were sending students home “in droves; 20 to 30 a day” with gastrointestinal illnesses, Utt said. A number of faculty members also caught the stomach bug, she added.

“It was really contagious compared with a lot of the viruses we’ve had in the past,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a virus that contagious since I’ve been here.”

Sherry Vestal, school nurse coordinator with Henry County Public Schools, said she has seen “several cases of flu” so far this winter. Few diagnosed cases of norovirus also had been reported, “but we did have some gastric issues” before Christmas, she added.

“I’m hoping the weather and the long break killed the virus,” she said.

Vestal said she no longer has to report absentee rates daily to the VDH, so she didn’t have an exact count on the number of flu or norovirus cases. “We might have a few at one school and not many at another,” she said. “(It’s) not a mass number of students.”

Ortiz-Garcia said she has not seen any data about a norovirus outbreak. “We know there’s been an increase in people” affected by it, she added.

For respiratory flu cases, Ortiz-Garcia said the health department still recommends flu shots. She warned, however, that getting a flu shot does not mean instant immunity.

“If you get a flu shot, it takes two weeks to create immunity,” she said. “If you still get the flu, probably you were exposed before that.”

Teachers and students coming to school when they might be carriers is “always a problem,” Utt said. “(They) get it and they do come to school sometimes, and they’re contagious. Teachers have to work, and students, sometimes parents send them to school sometimes not knowing (they are ill).”

The health department no longer has flu shots available for adults, Ortiz-Garcia said, although it does still have flu vaccines available for children. “Many pharmacies and physicians ... do still have vaccines available,” she said.

Otherwise, the tried and true method to prevent any illness is sound hand washing, Ortiz-Garcia said. “People should stay home if they experience any symptoms,” she added, especially avoiding “high-risk areas” such as hospitals, nursing homes or other medical offices.

In the meantime, health officials are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping the worst is over.

“So far, it’s looking better,” Utt said. “We might have a different answer next week.”


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