Flu packing severe wallop

With the Centers for Disease Control upgrading New York’s flu status from “prevalent” to “widespread
A physician assistant gives a flu shot at Scotia Glenville Family Medicine in this 2012 file photo.
A physician assistant gives a flu shot at Scotia Glenville Family Medicine in this 2012 file photo.

With the Centers for Disease Control upgrading New York’s flu status from “prevalent” to “widespread” in recent weeks, local hospitals are reporting both more cases and more severe symptoms than in past years.

Nearly 4,000 cases of flu were confirmed in 54 counties in New York in the last week in December, according to the state Department of Health, an increase of 90 percent from the previous week. That’s more than twice the number of cases reported in the same week in 2013, but slightly less than the same week in 2012, when 4,300 cases were reported.

Nationwide, the flu hit epidemic levels in the third week of December, with 6.8 percent of all reported deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza. The state Department of Health reports one pediatric death related to the flu this past week, and a second earlier in the season.

In New York, only Schoharie County is listed as having no flu cases this season, although officials at the Schoharie County Department of Health said they are aware of flu cases in the county, but could not explain why they’re not reflected in the state’s report. According to the state Department of Health, the weekly flu reports are generated from information submitted by clinical laboratories that perform flu tests.

Dr. Rainer Feyer of Nathan Littauer Hospital’s Gloversville Family Practice said he’s seen a “definite rise” in flu cases in the past week or so, as well as particularly severe symptoms associated with this flu.

“What I’ve seen more than anything else is that the symptoms are much worse than I’ve seen in the past three years,” he said. “The symptoms are pretty destructive right now, in terms of the cough, the relentless cough. People can’t sleep at all.”

Feyer said he’s seen “a good amount” of patients in their 70s and 80s hospitalized due to the severe cough and respiratory symptoms.

The cough has been so bad with this strain of flu that he’s been prescribing inhalers like those used by asthmatics to ease the discomfort.

“I’ve used them a lot for this flu and have been very successful with that, actually, more than any other cough medication,” he said.

The intense coughing can cause tissue damage that can lead to secondary infections, trouble eating and loss of sleep, he said, which can all contribute to a weakened immune system.

Both Ellis Medicine in Schenectady and St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam also confirmed a rise in flu cases in the past week or so. Eve Bankert, director of Infection Prevention and Epidemiology at Ellis Medicine, said the hospital has seen nearly five times as many cases this year as they saw around this time last year.

The reason for the spike, she said, is the “antigenic drift” in the primary flu strain from the vaccine — in other words, the vaccine missed the mark. Each year, the vaccine is created based on best estimates of what the flu virus will look like in the coming season. The 2013 vaccine was “very effective,” said Joe McQueen, director of public communications for Schenectady County, which may add to the perception that this year is particularly bad.

“Some years, they’re almost perfect,” he said. “And other years they’re not. This is one of those years where they didn’t quite get what the flu that’s out there actually is. So that’s why you’re seeing it as only about 50 percent effective this year.”

But, he said, 50 percent is better than nothing, and health officials are still urging people to get the flu vaccine.

“It still helps,” said McQueen. “Even if it doesn’t have the perfect match to the flu that’s out there, you still build up some immunity, so maybe you won’t get as sick.”

Feyer said flu season usually peaks around the end of the year, then again in February and March.

In addition to getting vaccinated, health officials recommend washing your hands often, keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth, staying home if you have the flu, and covering your mouth when you cough.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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