By Nathan Solis, Courthouse News
The flu arrived early this year in the United States, and health officials say Americans from the West Coast to the East Coast can expect several more weeks of flu season.
The impact of the flu is far and wide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said there is still time for people to get the flu shot because while the season appears to be peaking there could be 11-13 more weeks to go for this flu season.
“There are still more strains that could show up,” said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division with the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Health officials reported their findings in a Thursday morning phone conference.
Data from the first week of January (see map above) show the majority of the country is gripped by the H3N2 strain of the flu, with a majority of states reporting high levels of influenza activity.
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health says 36 people have died with reported influenza-like symptoms this season, up from the 13 deaths reported the same time last year. All deaths reported this year were people over the age of 65. Emergency room visits for influenza-like symptoms are up 130 percent, according to county health officials.
“Flu is widespread and elevated in LA County,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, director of Acute Communicable Disease Control. Balter said while this year’s outbreak was early, it’s too soon to say what exactly caused the spike in the number of illnesses.
Nationwide, 20 pediatric deaths have been reported due to the flu this season, but the most recent pediatric deaths were the result of several influenza strains, not just the H3N2 strain.
CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said the flu is severe and widespread, starting in early October and making its way across the continental United States. A majority of states are reporting high influenza-illness activity, more so than in previous years. The data comes from over 2,000 care providers like hospitals and clinics.
“Our surveillance team has been doing this for 13 years and this is the first time the continental US has been the same color in the graph,” Jernigan said.
Health officials don’t currently know how effective this season’s vaccines. That data will be made available sometime in February, but Jernigan said they will be more effective than what Australia saw during its flu season in 2017, when effective rates were at 10 percent.
More than likely, the vaccine effective rates this season will be in the 30 percent range.
“Even a 30 percent effectiveness rate can save many lives,” Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, Los Angeles County’s interim health officer, said at a press conference this week.
Antiviral medications, like over-the-counter Tamiflu, are recommended to combat the daily symptoms of a flu and all health providers recommend annual vaccinations. Fitzgerald said manufacturers have produced and shipped over 151 million vaccines as of last month.
The data for this season, while incomplete, have not reached the heights of the 2014-15 season according to the CDC, which was severe.
“This is clearly an epidemic,” Jernigan said. “We’ve clearly based the baseline in November and we’re at the peak of it now. That happens every year.”
Nationwide during the first week of 2018, 5.8 percent of all patient visits reported through the influenza surveillance network were due to influenza-like symptoms. That’s up from the national baseline of 2.2 percent.
The most vulnerable are people 65 years and older, children, people with chronic illnesses like diabetes and pregnant women, but the CDC says they are seeing an increase in the data of baby boomers over the age of 55.
Across the globe people are not faring much better, according to the World Health Organization. China, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Spain have reported regional outbreaks and Poland and the United Kingdom have also seen an uptick in positive influenza reports.