Flu season, which already has sent the highest percentage of people nationally to their health care providers since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, is still at least a couple weeks weeks from its expected peak.
The virus has been linked to 63 deaths through Feb. 2 in Connecticut, including 10-year-old Nico Mallozzi of New Canaan and 52 people in a most vulnerable age group, 65 and older. Influenza activity in the state has been classified as widespread since early December, creating a shortage of both flu shots and the antiviral medication Tamiflu for people with flu symptoms.
“It’s shaping up to be a moderate to severe season,” said Dr. Jack Ross, chief of infectious disease at Hartford Hospital during a recent Fox61 appearance. “We’re going to see another 2 to 4 weeks with the activity we’re seeing now, which is heavy. It is widespread. It usually happens sequentially. This year, it’s all at once.”
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Influenza A (H3N2) viruses remain the most likely to cause illness both nationally and in Connecticut, although the state Department of Public Health says influenza B viruses also have been reported. H3N2, as it did during the 2014-15 flu season, has been difficult for older people.
“We’re seeing it this year in people from 30 up to 100,” said Dr. Ross. “At Hartford Hospital, 8 out of 10 people we’re seeing with it are over 30. And 45 percent are over 65. We usually have 25 percent to 40 percent over 65.”
Emergency department visits in the state attributed to “fever/flu syndrome” have increased to 14.2 percent, the highest weekly level since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, said DPH.
A total of 3,895 influenza-positive laboratory tests have been reported in the state during the current flu season, Aug. 27 through Feb. 3, according to a DPH update released Feb. 8.
Here are the results by county:
- Fairfield: 1,121.
- New Haven: 1,062.
- Hartford: 832.
- Middlesex: 316.
- New London: 207.
- Windham: 134.
- Litchfield: 128.
- Tolland: 95.
How can you tell when you have more than just a cold? Generally, the cold symptoms are much milder than flu symptoms. You’re also less likely to have a fever with a cold. Flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly. Cold symptoms appear gradually over a few days.
“Influenza has a wide spectrum of symptoms,” said Dr. Ross. “You could be almost asymptomatic. But for most of us, it’s like getting hit by a truck.”
People are most likely to spread the flu even before their first symptom appears, which makes managing the spread of flu difficult. Those who have the flu can infect others anywhere from one day prior to getting sick to five to seven days after. By avoiding others who are sick and observing hand hygiene, you can stop the flu from spreading to you.
And make sure you get a flu shot, though this year’s vaccine might not be particularly effective against H3N2.
“Preliminary information from Australia indicates it could be only 10-11 percent effective against the H3N2 strain,” said Dr. Ross. “[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is analyzing that now. We won’t have the number [for the U.S.] until spring.”
Know The Difference
Cough; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose.
Fever (you can have respiratory symptoms without a fever); headaches; body aches; chills; fatigue; sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
To lower your cold or flu risk:
- Wash you hands frequently with soap and water. (Viruses that cause illness live on your hands.) Where soap and water is not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains alcohol. Technique matters when cleaning your hands. Take your time. Wet your hands first with water, apply the soap and rub your hands together vigorously for at least 15-20 seconds, covering all surfaces of the hands and fingers. (Avoid using hot water to prevent drying of skin.) Rinse with water, then use disposable towels to dry. Also use a towel to turn off the faucet.
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is more effective at killing germs on hands than soap and water (except where certain diarrheal illnesses are concerned). It is also less damaging to your hands than soap and water and kills the bad germs you might pick up on your hands while caring for patients. The good germs quickly grow back on your skin. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer only works if you use the right amount in the right way. When using a hand sanitizer, cover all surfaces of your hands. Your hands should stay wet for about 20 seconds.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. (Viruses have many gateways into the human body.)
- Avoid people who are sick. Don’t let their illness become yours.
Don’t Ask Your Doctor For Antibiotics
Antibiotics to not resolve viruses that cause colds and flu, bronchitis and most sore throats, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Instead, symptom relief might be the best treatment for these infections. Ask your healthcare provider about over-the-counter medications that might help relieve symptoms.
- Drink more fluids.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
- Soothe your throat with crushed ice, sore-throat spray or lozenges. (Do not give lozenges to young children.)
- Use honey to relieve a cough. (Do not give honey to an infant under 1 year old.)
Still need a flu shot? Visit the nearest Hartford HealthCare/GoHealth Urgent Care Center. Call first to see if the vaccine is available. If it’s not, you can reserve a vaccination at another GoHealth location.
Also, Hartford HealthCare at Home is sponsoring a flu clinic Feb. 17 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at East Hartford Town Hall, 740 Main St. Children between ages 3 and 8 must have received an influenza vaccination in a previous year. Hartford HealthCare at Home is able to bill the following insurance companies: Aetna, Anthem, CIGNA, ConnectiCare, Medicare and the Medicare Advantage Plans for Aetna, Anthem and ConnectiCare. People with insurance should bring their card. There is no co-pay for the vaccine. For people without insurance, a reduced rate will be charged.