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2012-13 worst season for flu in Kershaw County

Posted: January 15, 2013 5:08 p.m.
Updated: January 16, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The 2012-13 flu season has already become the worst of the last seven years, according to KershawHealth Infection and Prevention Control Director Paula Guild. The good news could be, however, that the number of flu cases peaked earlier in the season.

Guild’s numbers track all KershawHealth facilities, including those on its main campus, in Elgin and among its hospital-owned physician practices, and track what are called rapid flu test figures. Rapid flu tests are nasal swab tests often performed on children, but that can be used with adults as well. They can be performed in either physician or hospital settings.

According to Guild, KershawHealth has had 406 positive rapid flu tests this season, dating back to mid-November. The number of positive tests spiked on Dec. 1 with 26. The highest number of cases for a single week was 106 during the third week of December.

“Our peak was between Dec. 1 and Dec. 19,” Guild confirmed. “We’re seeing a little lull right now. Respiratory and fever have been the predominant symptoms. In terms of hospitalization, we’re really seeing more elderly than young -- those 65 and older have been the highest admittances, followed by the young kids.”

Guild said she and Dr. Marguerite Carlton, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates of Kershaw County, were concerned about the number of flu cases before Christmas, especially among children.

“We were afraid we’d end up with a lot of kids in the hospital at Christmas, but fortunately it didn’t pan out that way,” she said.

This year’s record pace is quite a bit higher than in previous years.

“Last year was extremely mild,” Guild said, with only 35 cases, “so it’s not terribly surprising to be seeing more flu and to be seeing it a little earlier this year. That’s what was impressive about this flu season -- that it came so much earlier. We don’t usually see it peak until the first or mid-part of February. This year’s going to end up pretty remarkable. It will be our high year.”

The next largest number of cases was in the 2010-11 season when KershawHealth reported 327 positive rapid flu tests. In 2009-10, the season of world-wide outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, KershawHealth reported a total of 247 positive rapid flu tests. That was actually slightly down from the year before when the 2008-09 season totaled 249 cases. There were 282 cases in 2007-08; 118, the fewest, in 2006-07; and 141 in 2005-06 when KershawHealth began tracking such numbers.

Guild said of the 406 cases so far this season, the vast majority -- 369 -- have been Type A, with only 37 as Type B. Regardless of which strain was spreading, Guild said the vaccine prepared this year should help prevent the outbreak.

“This year’s vaccine contains three different strains of flu in it: two As and a B. When (the U.S.) prepares vaccines, they look at what is happening in Asia. They assess the strain going on there and prepare the vaccine to combat that because that’s what eventually reaches us,” Guild said.

KershawHealth reports its figures to the S.C. Department of Health and Environment Control (DHEC), which then adds statistics from other participating providers. DHEC statistics show that Kershaw County healthcare providers reported treating just under 1 percent -- .99 percent, to be exact -- of patients in Kershaw County for influenza-like illnesses (ILI) between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, the most recent time period available.

“This is where you’re examined in a physician’s office and it’s the doctor’s opinion that they are seeing classic signs of influenza,” DHEC spokesperson Jim Beasley said. “There’s no test involved.”

According to DHEC’s numbers, the hardest-hit county is Lexington, with an ILI rate of 9 percent, followed by Georgetown County at 5.67 percent, and Aiken at 2.36 percent. Many counties do not have reporting healthcare providers; Lee County does not, for example. A number of counties with participating providers reported no flu cases.

Beasley said ILI figures are the “ground floor” of DHEC’s tracking of the flu in South Carolina. Next are the rapid flu tests Guild reported.

Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, Kershaw County reported 47 positive rapid flu tests. Lancaster County had 40 positive rapid tests while Lee County had none. Charleston County reported 552 positive rapid flu tests, followed by Greenville County with 270, Richland with 262, and Horry County with 211.

“Rapid tests tells you whether or not you have the flu -- yes or no -- and even the type,” Beasley said, adding that it is relatively inexpensive and that insurance often covers the cost of the test.

The gold standard, he said, are what are known as positive confirmatory tests.

“These are sent off to a laboratory,” Beasley said, “and can tell not only whether or not you have the flu but what subtype. It’s obviously more expensive because a scientist is involved -- you’re not just relying on a simple little test, but relying on a professional.”

For Dec. 30 through Jan. 5, Kershaw County had five such positive tests. Dorchester County also reported five positive tests. Anderson, Greenville and Sumter counties reported two each. Berkeley, Florence, Georgetown, Greenwood, Horry, Pickens and Spartanburg counties all reported one each. Beaufort County reported 17 positive flu tests, while Charleston County reported 37.

On a cumulative basis, for Sept. 30 through Jan. 5, Kershaw County has had nine positive flu tests. In comparison, Sumter has had 24; Richland, 14; and Lexington, four.

Guild said KershawHealth sent a few confirmatory tests on to a laboratory.

“We sent at least three samples in one particular week, trying to assess if there was an outbreak in one particular area, but only one came up positive out of those three,” she said.

Beasley said the public shouldn’t read too much into what appear to be Kershaw County’s currently low numbers and continue to be vigilant.

“These statistics are almost more anecdotal, but they give us an idea of what’s going on regarding influenza around the state. Regardless of the numbers, we still have a widespread infection,” he said. “The best way to get a downward trend is to combat the spread. You can do that by getting the flu shot, but also by doing all the things you’re grandmother said to do.”

Beasley said citizens should stay away from others who already have the flu; stay at home if they contract the flu so that they are not spreading it themselves; and “living a good, healthy lifestyle.” By that, he said those that contract the flu should get plenty of rest.

“When you’re healthier, you are more able to fight illness,” Beasley said.

Guild said the “biggest thing” is for people to cough or sneeze into their sleeves.

“That immediately stops the spread of (potentially infected) droplets into the air,” Guild said.

She said KershawHealth has installed infection control stations at different entrances to its facilities so that anyone walking in can use them if they think they’re sick.

“We also have signs saying that if they have the flu they shouldn’t visit anybody in the hospital,” Guild said. “That’s how we prevent spreading it to our patients.”

Guild acknowledged that it has been a busy flu season across the country and South Carolina.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had the number of deaths in South Carolina that they’ve had in other parts of the country,” she said.

According to DHEC, 22 people in South Carolina have died from the flu since Sept. 30. None of those deaths were in Kershaw County.

The most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that, since Oct. 1 there have been 3,710 laboratory-confirmed flu hospitalizations. Two children died from the flu during the week ending Jan. 5. A total of 20 children have died nationwide since this flu season began.

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