“Although the beginning of the flu season is in September, it’s typical that the peak of the cycle is now,” said Dr. Nereida Veitia, director of patient services for the Ulster County Department of Health this week. “The last two years, with H1N1, things weren’t typical. But this year seems to be a return to normal, flu-wise.”
The flu that year started showing up in Veracruz in Mexico. My family remembers this clearly because we drove right through the town where that pandemic started, Perote, on the same day when it was reported to have been first noticed. And ate some pork carnitas at a roadside café nearby.
Thank heavens that that flu didn’t turn out as disastrous as some had predicted (leaving room for other natural disasters, and political screams of worse, to fill our news cycles).
What of these current flu symptoms?
Dr. Veitia said there were currently only 25 cases reported for the entire season in Ulster County. Much of the time, she said, people mistake cold for flu symptoms. The only way professionals can differentiate between the two is through symptomology.
According to the state website on flu that Dr. Veitia and the county health department website refer me to, influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, “is a severe respiratory illness that is easily spread and can lead to severe complications, even death.” Each year in the U.S., influenza and its related complications result in on average approximately 226,000 hospitalizations and over 23,600 deaths. Combined with pneumonia, influenza is the nation’s eighth leading cause of death.
A new report on the same state website highlights that to date there have been only two deaths from the flu this season on a statewide basis, both infants. Furthermore, it was repeatedly noted that influenza is following its typical pattern this year, as Dr, Vieria said, hitting the hardest just before spring emerges.
According to the latest New York State Health Department, 1383 influenza cases were reported statewide for the week ending February 12 statewide, up from 1291 cases during the week of January 29.
Getting a wider look at the figures, and the scope of a flu season, consider this: On October 16 there were 20 cases reporting for treatment statewide, which grew to 67 by November 13, 254 cases by December 11, and 977 by January 1. Add to that the state health officials’ own caveat that only a fraction of actual flu cases are tested, and the statistics can start to be seen as a barometer of how pervasive the virus is in the community just now. As well as for the coming mud season, lasting into April.
H1N1, Dr. Veitia points out, started in spring and spread through the summer months … and then lasted almost into summer last year. “Everything depends on the strains of influenza that are prevalent each year,” Dr. Vietia added, speaking in terms of A and B types, as well as anomalies such as H1N1.
Once doctors get a sense of what to expect as a “universal strain” expected for a season, immunization shots are prepared and distributed. And then the case-by-case studies of patients reporting with, and then being treated for flu, are utilized in the determination of immunizations for the next year’s flue season.
Up in the state capital, for example, 38 hospital patients tested positive for influenza strains in January at Albany Medical Center (AMC), compared with nine in December. Cases now appear to be declining there, with 21 people testing positive in February. The end of the peak period of the season usually lasts about six weeks. “You don’t have a crystal ball, but we’d hope the flu should be peaking about now and start declining,” Dr. Donna Kent, director of epidemiology at AMC, was recently quoted saying.
She added that the last two years’ flu scares may have helped things return to “normal” because of the numbers vaccinated “just in case.”
Back during the height of the H1N1 scare, in the autumn of 2009, 154 people tested positive for the so-called swine flu in Albany. And only this past August did the World Health Organization declare the pandemic over, although strains of it have still shown up in a quarter of the cases reported this year, just as a strain of it is also included in all flu shots this season.
Tips for dealing with flu
So what about all those things similar to the flu, from common colds to bronchitis and the less knowable grippe, those that mimic the disease? Should we be worried?
Dr. Veitia repeated how influenza can only be determined via its symptoms … but then noted how the key is often the accompaniment of fever with the flu. “You also get more aches and pains,” she added. “Hospitals do the testing. They ask why someone’s come in.”
She referred anyone with suspicions about how they’re feeling to contact the health department to find out about vaccinations. Infants and the elderly are most at risk with the disease. The health website, upon inspection, has a Google vaccination site-finder. And there’s plenty of help available, by phone, for those not so technology-savvy.
Dr. Veitia also referred everyone to key steps New Yorkers can take to reduce their risk of getting the flu or giving it to others:
Get the flu vaccine! Either the shot or the nasal spray if eligible.
To help boost one’s immune system, get plenty of rest and exercise. Eat properly.
Stay home from work or school if you experience flu symptoms. Taking it easy could help you feel better sooner and also will slow the spread of disease to others.
If you think you have been exposed to someone with flu, or are starting to have flu symptoms, call your health-care provider. Certain medications can help if you start taking them within the first 48 hours.
To reduce the spread of germs, cover your nose and mouth, preferably with disposable tissue, when coughing or sneezing. Always discard used tissue properly in the trash.
Pay attention to hand-washing. After using the bathroom, before eating and before and after preparing food, clean your hands with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds. Carry a waterless hand gel and wash your hands frequently.
Clean surfaces you touch frequently, such as door knobs, water faucets, refrigerator handles and telephones.
“The typical pattern is that everyone will be starting to get outside more. The bacteria doesn’t survive as well when it’s warm out,” Dr. Veitia added. “It tends to reduce, the chances for the flu. But it also depends on the strains we’re dealing with, which we only discover as they come to us.”
Which leaves us with only one real wish — for the weather to break soon so we can open those windows and let this flu season go, once and for all.
At least until next fall.++
For more on all things flu, locally-oriented, visit the Ulster County Health Department website at www.ulstercountyny.gov/health or call them at 334-3150. There are also UCHD satellite offices at 300 Flatbush Avenue in Kingston (340-3070), and at 50 Center Street in Ellenville (647-2343).