Influenza activity spiked this week in Oregon, but procrastinators still have time to get their flu shots.
Dr. Ann Thomas, a public health physician for the Oregon Health Authority, said flu season took off dramatically in the last couple weeks.
“Last season, we doubled our hospitalizations (from 800 to 1,500),” she said. “This year is looking like another record year — and not in a good way.”
The state is experiencing intense and widespread flu activity. More than 120 people were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in Portland during the week ending Dec. 23 — the most recent week reported. The state doesn’t track hospitalizations outside the metro area, but Umatilla County hospitals are also seeing an uptick.
“We’ve been seeing more positive cases,” said Nick Bejarano, spokesman for Good Shepherd Medical Center. “We’re seeing cases earlier in the season and more frequently.”
Since Dec. 1, 88 patients tested positive for flu in Good Shepherd’s emergency department, Bejarano said, 77 for influenza A and 11 for influenza B.
St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton is also seeing an upswing.
“The flu is here,” said St. Anthony Hospital spokesman Larry Blanc.
He knew of four people currently admitted with influenza-like illness and said ER doctors are testing more patients with flu-like symptoms. So far, 16 patients tested positive (11 for A and five for B). Of those 16 patients, four said they had been vaccinated.
A station with masks and hand sanitizer now sits near St. Anthony’s entryway for visitors who haven’t been vaccinated or suspect they might be ill. It’s a similar scenario at Good Shepherd. Unvaccinated employees at both hospitals must don masks.
Dr. Jon Hitzman, a family physician and the county medical officer, said the Pendleton Family Medicine waiting room is rarely empty.
“We’re seeing a big uptick in respiratory infections earlier than we usually do,” Hitzman said. “Usually we see the big uptick in February or March. This started before Christmas and we’re not through it yet.”
The influenza vaccine isn’t particularly effective this season because of mutation in the flu strain that is circulating. Thomas recommends getting a flu shot anyway. She referenced a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that suggests that getting vaccinated reduces a child’s risk of dying from the flu. For adults, getting a flu shot could also mean a milder case.
“It’s almost never too late,” Thomas said. “People should drop what they’re doing and go get a flu shot.”
Umatilla County Public Health Director James Setzer, who is trained as an epidemiologist, isn’t yet alarmed about flu numbers.
“We’re ahead of last year in terms of numbers of cases, but they aren’t very different from projections,” Setzer said. “While we’re having high activity, it’s not unexpectedly high in Umatilla County. We’re not in a panic or high-alert mode.”
Oregon doesn’t report adult flu-related deaths, but Washington has confirmed 20 so far this season. OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie said Oregon doesn’t monitor adult flu-related fatalities because adults often die of multiple causes such as pneumonia and heart failure.
“Flu might have been a contributing factor, but it’s difficult to track,” Modie said.
Oregon does track pediatric deaths. So far this season, no children have died from influenza.
The CDC reports that flu contributes to an estimated 36,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. About 200,000 people land in hospitals. At highest risk are children under the age of 5, adults 65 years or older, pregnant women and those with medical conditions such as asthma, heart or lung disease, or a weakened immune system.
Oregon and 20 other states are experiencing high influenza activity. Others are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Widespread influenza (an indicator of geographic range rather than intensity) was reported in 36 states, including Oregon.
Flu season will likely take a couple more months to wind down. In the meantime, Hitzman said, “I encourage people who are sick to stay home and drink plenty of fluids.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-966-0810.