Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were sunning ourselves at Hammonasset Beach? Maybe it only feels that way, but now it’s officially fall and we only care about one thing — the coming flu season.
Predicting the severity of a flu season isn’t like predicting which team will win more football games, the Giants or Patriots, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will only caution, as usual, that influenza activity will increase in October and November before peaking between December and February. The state Department of Public has already reported the first death associated with flu this season, a man over age 65, with a total of 22 people statewide hospitalized between Aug. 26 and Oct. 13 with laboratory-confirmed flu.
“The flu season is right now,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a press conference Oct. 22 at Hartford Hospital, where he urged state residents to get their flu vaccine soon.
Last year’s flu season was a monster. People in Connecticut were still getting the flu in May, pushing the seasonal total of influenza-positive laboratory tests in the state to more than 12,000.
“The 2017-18 flu season was the second-worst we have seen,” says Dr. Jack Ross, chief of infectious disease at Hartford Hospital, “It was eclipsed only by the initial emergence of H1N1 in 2009. We saw over 400 admissions and 21 deaths [at Hartford Hospital], with two-thirds of cases H3N2.”
Nationally, says the CDC, more than 80,000 people died from the flu, the highest number reported in 40 years. A likely contributor: The CDC now says fewer than 4 in 10 American adults got flu shots last winter, the lowest rate in seven years.
The 155 million doses of vaccine produced nationally last year were 40 percent effective against the flu, according to the latest data (August). “It was actually a good match to the circulating flu strains,” says Dr. Ross. Notably, it was least effective (25 percent) against the H3N2 strain, which accounted for 578 of the 3,490 patients hospitalized in Connecticut with laboratory-confirmed influenza through mid-May.
The CDC doesn’t even know for sure which new flu strains will circulate this season, which has begun already. (The Connecticut Department of Public Health reported the first flu cases in balmy mid-September.) But it does recommend that flu vaccines protect against the three or four most common viruses anticipated by researchers. Here is the gobbledygook that should be in the syringe this season:
- A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1) pdm09-like virus.
- A/Singapore/INFIMH-16-0019/2016 A(H3N2)-like virus.
- B/Colorado/06/2017-like (Victoria lineage) virus.
- If it’s a four-component vaccine, add B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (Yamagata lineage) virus.
“Until flu season begins,” says Dr. Ross, “there is no way to predict the strains that will predominate or the degree of protection the vaccine may offer.”
One Way To Avoid The Flu — Your Food (Click here)
The 2017-18 flu season, with record-breaking hospitalization rates across the country, resulted in the deaths of 154 people in Connecticut. Older people were particularly vulnerable to the flu, notably Type A. Of the 154 deaths, 128 were older than 65 and 15 were between 50 and 64 years old. Three children also died from the flu.
Nationally, the 2017-18 season was the first classified as high severity across all age groups since the CDC adopted new ways to classify seasonal severity. It was so severe in Connecticut that doctors at Hartford Hospital used a heart-lung machine known as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) to save some patients with respiratory failure caused by the virus.
“The season was one of the earliest and longest we have seen,” says Dr. Ross, “stretching from the first week of December to Mid-May. In the United States, we saw shortages of masks, test kits, inpatient rooms and antiviral medications despite the planning all facilities undertake.”
When To Get A Flu Shot
The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months get a flu shot by the end of October. Remember, it takes about two weeks for the antibodies that protect the body from flu to develop. Procrastinators, vaccinations will still be available in January or even later. But earlier is better. (See where to get a flu shot below.)
The CDC used to recommend getting a flu shot as soon as the vaccines became available, but it became counterproductive.
“The commercial vaccinators, the pharmacies and big-box stores were starting in July and August to capture the market,” says Dr. Ross.
That’s way too early. The actual duration of a flu vaccine based on emerging information, says Dr. Ross, is likely six months. Getting an early-bird special vaccine, then a second vaccine laster in the flu season, won’t help, either.
“A second dose later in the year actually is of little benefit and not recommended,” says Dr. Ross. “Additionally, supplies of vaccine are often scarce as the season progresses, and should be used for unvaccinated patients or their families.”
Though a vaccine shortage is not expected this year, it’s possible some vaccine lots from manufacturers will be delayed until cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.
Cold vs. Flu: Know The Difference
How can you tell when you have more than just a cold? Generally, 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.
Don’t Ask Your Doctor For Antibiotics
Antibiotics do not resolve viruses that cause colds and flu, bronchitis and most sore throats, says the CDC.
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.)
Need a flu shot? Here are your options:
Visit the nearest Hartford HealthCare/GoHealth Urgent Care Center. Call first to see if the vaccine is available. (See website for phone numbers of each GoHealth location.) If it’s not available, you can reserve a vaccination at another GoHealth location.
In the Meriden-Wallingford-Cheshire area, visit a Mediquick location, in either Meriden and Cheshire.
Flu shots are also available from your Hartford HealthCare Medical Group primary care physician, either by appointment or walk-in. Call 877.707.4442 to make an appointment or if you need a primary care physician in your area. Click here for a schedule of flu clinics sponsored by Hartford HealthCare at Home, where you can get free flu shots (no co-pay) with a qualifying insurance card or, if not covered by insurance, a flu shot at a reduced rate.