The enormity of the 2017-18 flu season has reached the point where hospitals and medical centers in various states, including California, have needed to set up separate tents in parking lots to treat the thousands that have come in seeking treatment.
Urgent care facilities and emergency rooms have been packed by thousands of patients seeking medications and relief from this year’s influenza strains, in particular the A strain known as H3N2 which had proven stubbornly resistant to the vaccines initially developed to fight it.
In Los Angeles county, 36 influenza-related deaths had been confirmed as of Jan. 10. Last year at this time, 13 deaths associated with influenza had been reported. This flu season, emergency room visits for influenza-like illness symptoms are up 130 percent.
“So far this season, influenza A, H3N2, has been the most common form of influenza,” said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during a media conference call.
“These viruses are often linked to more severe illness, especially among children and people age 65 and older. When H3 viruses are predominant, we tend to have a worse flu season with more hospitalizations and more deaths.”
Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division in the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, reiterated that the current epidemic goes beyond one state or one region of the county.
“I think the simplest way to describe it is that flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now,” Jernigan said. “Our team that does this kind of surveillance studies has been doing this particular thing for 13 years and this is the first year we had the entire continental U.S. be the same color on the graph, meaning there’s widespread activity in all of the continental U.S. at this point.”
Flu seasons can typically last from October through April, often reaching its highest peak in February.
It is why doctors, along with county and state health officials, continue to urge the public to still get a flu shot if they’ve not yet had one.
“We continue to recommend the flu vaccine,” Fitzgerald said “While our flu vaccines are far from perfect, they are the best way to prevent getting sick from the flu and it is not too late to get one. As of this last month, manufacturers reported that they have shipped more than 151 million doses of [new and additional] flu vaccines, so it should be readily available.
“While our surveillance systems show that nationally the flu season may be peaking now, we know from past experience that it will take many more weeks for flu activity to truly slow down.”
“If you look at seasons like this one that we’re having, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of influenza to go,” he said. “In addition, there’s other strains of the flu that are still to show up to be a major cause of disease. We always know that B viruses, which the vaccine also covers, will be showing up later in the season.
“Another reason why it’s good to go ahead and get vaccinated now if you have not gotten vaccinated.”
Flu symptoms can include, but are not exclusive to, fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Pneumonia is the most common complication of the flu. Flu can also aggravate underlying health conditions like heart disease or asthma.
Everyone 6 months of age and older should be vaccinated against the flu every year. Flu vaccination is especially important for people who are at greater risk for complications from flu and those who live with or care for these individuals. Groups of people that are at high risk for flu complications include children younger than 5 years, adults 65 years and older, and pregnant women. Medical conditions such as asthma, chronic lung or heart disease, diabetes and being overweight can also increase your risk for flu complications.