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Health care providers see cases widespread across the state

Flu: earlier-than-usual start takes toll

Flu season started early this year in Mississippi, and cases of it were widespread throughout the state during the holiday season.

“It`s everywhere,” said Dr. Mary Currier, state epidemiologist for the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH). “During the worst part of the flu season, 20% to 25% of folks coming into the emergency room had flu or flu-like symptoms.”

MSDH has 45 sentinel providers in the state. These are healthcare providers such as emergency rooms that report the number of patients being seen with flu or flu-like symptoms as a proportion of total patients. In the last weeks of December, the state average ranged between 17% and 20%.

Currier said that data indicates the peak level of flu season was being reached around the end of the year. The health department got its first positive culture for flu in late October — earlier than the state has ever seen.

An earlier start could mean an earlier end to the worst of it.

“The hope is that the flu season will be over earlier,” Currier said. “But it could continue this way, or we could have another strain of the flu virus come through. I don`t think any one knows and we won`t know until it is over.”

Currently, there is no evidence flu this year is any worse than normal. But, again, that won`t be known until the season is over and the federal Centers for Disease Control makes an evaluation.

On the Coast, there has been an indication that this is a high-volume flu season.

“We had our first run of it back in November, so we had indications the flu season was starting early and might be increased in volume from the average,” said Richard Lucas, director of public relations and communications, Singing River Hospital System in Pascagoula. “Typically, we have our highest volumes for flu-related symptoms in January or even February. But we had relatively high numbers in November, which is early. Now we will see what January brings. That will be interesting to watch. All indications are it is going to be a heavy flu season.”

Staffing can be a challenge during times of high patient volume. But Lucas said plans in place to deal with the extra demands have been working very well.

David Herrin, patient care manager for emergency services at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, said the emergency department saw an average of 230 patients a day in December with approximately 20% of those being diagnosed with flu-like symptoms or an upper respiratory illness. Herrin said young people were particularly hard hit, with the majority of patients between the ages of newborn to 24 years old.

Dr. Jim Thompson, an assistant professor and emergency room physician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, reported that the number of patients with flu or flu-like symptoms started in November and steadily increased since then. He said it is hard to say if the flu is more prevalent this year. No statistics have been kept, but it is his impression that it is a heavier flu season than normal.

Thompson said the way to differentiate between flu and the common cold is how quickly you get sick. Flu comes on very quickly, while a cold might cause minor symptoms for a day or two before it becomes a full-blown cold. Also, flu produces more body aches than a regular cold.

Thompson said that he wasn`t seeing a lot of cases of people coming in from the workplace with the flu. Most people were coming in on their off-time. Many workplaces provide free flu shots for employees to prevent the spread of the illness that can take a big bite out of productivity. But sometimes people can get the flu even after receiving the flu shot.

“The flu shot is based on predicting what is going to be worst and most prevalent virus based on what happens in the Far East,” Thompson said. “The flu shot gives vaccination against three strains thought to be particularly prevalent. But there are hundreds and thousands of different flu viruses out there. There is no flu vaccine that can possibly cover all types of flu viruses.”

The most prevalent type of flu this year wasn`t one selected for the flu virus, but the shot was still recommended by professionals, although supplies of vaccines had largely dried up by late December.

Thompson said emergency room (ER) personnel take the shot.

“In the course of a year all of us usually get a form of the flu, but we like to think it is probably one of the milder forms,” Thompson said. “We don`t get as sick. Those of us who work in emergency departments know we are on the front lines of healthcare. All kinds of potentially contagious diseases come in, and we just accept that as part of our job.”

Currier said that deciding whether or not to go to the ER or doctor for flu symptoms can be a tough call. The flu can make you “feel like you have been run over by a truck,” she said. But often people wait too late to see a doctor. There is antiviral medicine available that can shorten the duration and lessen the intensity of the flu, but it has to be taken within the first 48 hours of an onset of symptoms.

“You need to call your physician pretty early because the medication only works if you take it early in the illness,” Currier said. “Very often a prescription will be written without you going in to your doctor`s office. As far as going to an emergency room, it just depends on the severity of illness. As a person gets more sick, he needs to consider going in to see someone. You can get secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, that may require antibiotics and possibly hospitalization.”

To prevent the spread of flu in the workplace, Currier recommends encouraging employees to stay home if they are ill. If they do go to work, recommend they use good cough etiquette: cough into a tissue and wash your hands afterwards.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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