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Flu spiking early

But too soon to tell what rest of season will be like

Posted: January 4, 2018 11:18 a.m.
Updated: January 5, 2018 1:00 a.m.

The flu is back in Kershaw County and it’s come a little early this season.

As of Dec. 31, KershawHealth reported 173 positive flu tests. According to Paula Guild, the hospital’s director of infection control and prevention, 103 of those tests came back positive for Type A flu; the remaining 70 were of Type B.

Guild said that while KershawHealth tracks flu cases year round, the flu season is considered to start in October and running through March, with most cases hitting at the end of the season in February and March.

“We’ve seen more admissions -- nine -- during the last two weeks of the year than the year before,” Guild said, noting that KershawHealth admitted four of those patients during the last week of the year. “What worries us is that three of the four were over 65 years old. It’s usually the elderly and the very young that are hit most by the flu.”

KershawHealth submits flu data to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each Monday for the previous week (Sunday through Saturday). It does so by referring to the week of the year -- i.e., the week ending Dec. 30 was Week 52 for 2017, but this week, ending on Jan. 6, will be Week 1 of 2018. Due to New Year’s Day falling on a Monday, the hospital transmitted its last 2017 report on Tuesday, showing the first flu admission was during the week ending Oct. 28 and then the remaining eight admissions during the last three weeks of 2017: one during the week ending Dec. 16, three the week ending Dec. 23 and then the four during the week ending Dec. 30.

Positive flu tests ranged from three to five during October and November, but then ramped up to 10 positive tests during the week ending Dec. 9 and then 28, 66 and 45 positive tests, respectively, during the weeks ending Dec. 16, 23 and 30.

“It’s definitely spiking early,” Guild said.

During the 2016-17 flu season, there were approximately 15 or fewer positive flu tests during those same four weeks. A true spike didn’t come until around late January and early February 2017 and then each topping out around the 100 mark during the final week of February and again a month later, before dropping off dramatically during April.

However, there have been times when the flu has spiked early in recent seasons that also turned out to be some of the worst KershawHealth -- and the county -- have experienced. According to Guild, the 2012-13 season spiked during Week 50 of 2012 (mid-December); the 2013-14 season during Week 48 of 2013 (mid-December); and the 2014-15 season during Week 1 of 2015 (early January).

The 2012-13 flu season was one of the worst compared to the previous seven years, according to Guild when the C-I interviewed her in early January 2013. By that time, she had reported a total of 406 positive rapid flu tests, with the highest number of flu cases -- 106 -- coming during the third week of December 2012. In comparison, previous seasons saw far fewer total cases: 2011-12, 35; 2010-11, 327; 2009-10, 247 (despite the H1N1 global outbreak); 2008-09, 249; 2007-08, 282; 2006-07, 118; and 2005-06 (the first year KershawHealth began tracking such number), 141. The C-I later reported there were a total of 601 positive flu cases during the 2012-13 season.

The C-I also spoke to Guild in January 2015 about that season’s flu numbers. During that season (which, as noted above, spiked during the first week of January 2015), Guild reported the highest number of positive flu tests came during the week ending December 2014, with 215. As of the end of that first week of January 2015, Guild reported the total number of positive flu test had already hit 553 -- which matched the total number of positive flu tests for the entire 2013-14 flu season.

Still, and even with nearly 175 positive flu tests by the end of the calendar year, Guild said it is too soon to know what is going to happen during the rest of the flu season. She agreed the early spike could continue to climb or return to a more normal history or even taper off quickly.

“It’s just too early to tell,” she said.

The CDC’s last update on the flu was for the week ending Dec. 23. The update stated that the proportion of people seeing health care providers for influenza-like illnesses (ILI) was 5 percent, nearly double the national baseline average of 2.2 percent. South Carolina was listed among 21 states reporting “high” ILI activity. For that week (Dec. 17-23), South Carolina had reported 129 flu-related hospitalizations, with one laboratory-confirmed flu-related death. For the season, however, the state had reported 382 total flu-related hospitalizations and eight flu-related deaths. Kershaw County was listed among 10 counties in the state where the weekly flu case rate per 100,000 people was greater than 75 persons, making it one of the harder-hit counties in the state for the flu. South Carolina is also one of 36 states reporting widespread flu activity from a geographic point of view,

In comparison, a look at the weekly flu report for South Carolina from the same week in 2016 showed the state’s ILI activity was low, with only 2.88 percent of patients seeking treatment, which was lower than the state’s baseline of 3.13 percent. The number of flu hospitalizations were also lower (138, compared to this season’s 382) and there had only been three flu-related deaths at this point a year ago. At that point, Kershaw County’s per 100,000 case rate was very low, with only 23 confirmed cases. Also, the state was listed among a large number of states at that point in the 2016-17 season has having regional, rather than widespread, flu activity geographically.

Guild noted there have been media reports that this year’s flu vaccine is not well-matched to this season’s particular strain of the flu. 

On Dec. 5, CBS News ran a story with the headline “This year’s flu vaccine may only be 10% effective, experts warn.” The data CBS cited is from Australia, which used the same vaccine formulation the U.S. will be using, and that “it was only 10 percent effect there.” CBS reported that, on average, past vaccines have been about 42 percent effective, ranging from 10 to 60 percent in effectiveness. At least one expert CBS interviewed said that even if someone contracts the flu virus, if they’ve had the vaccine, it will likely be less severe.

A few weeks later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) also reported the 10 percent figure out of Australia, but said it was “unclear” if the vaccine would “have similar difficulty in stopping the virus.” The AJC also reported that the CDC issued a health advisory urging doctors to treat “at-risk patients with flu-like symptoms with antiviral medications quickly.”

In the meantime, Guild’s advice for preventing the flu hasn’t changed since 2015:

1. Wash your hands

2. Cough or sneeze into your sleeve. If you sneeze into a tissue, wash your hands again.

3. Social distancing -- don’t go places where there are lots of people, especially lots of sick people.

If you think you have the flu, call your doctor first; you may be able to avoid an office visit.


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