CAPITAL REGION — As nuclear and extended families gather for the holidays, they may want to remember to wash their hands frequently — and maybe ask who has had a flu shot.
The state Health Department on Thursday declared for the first time this winter that influenza is “prevalent” across the state. The number of cases in New York for the week ending Dec. 15 was 1,230, more than double the previous week’s confirmed cases.
All counties in the Capital Region had at least one confirmed case that week; Saratoga County, with 28 cases, had the most upstate. These are only confirmed cases — a fraction of influenza-suspected cases are submitted to the CDC for confirmation.
The federal Centers for Disease Control reported that New York was among six states — others were Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, and the island of Guam — reporting widespread flu activity. The CDC said flu season is now underway nationwide, with another 37 states reporting regional or localized flu activity.
In response to the rise in flu cases, seven Capital Region hospitals announced last week that they have implemented visitor guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading the flu, and other hospitals and health care facilities are expected to follow suit.
The hospitals that have implemented the new rules — a limit of two visitors per patient and prohibiting visits by children 12 and younger — include Ellis Hospital, Bellevue Women’s Center; Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital; Albany Memorial Hospital; St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany; and Samaritan and St. Mary’s hospitals in Troy.
Albany Medical Center, St. Mary’s Health Care in Amsterdam, and Saratoga Hospital are also expected to impose visitor restrictions as needed.
The Health Department’s declaration that flu is “prevalent” means health care workers who are not vaccinated must wear surgical or procedure masks in areas where patients are present. The general public is still being encouraged to get flu shots.
“The importance of getting vaccinated against influenza to protect yourself, as well as your family and friends, cannot be overstated,” said state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker.
All New Yorkers 6 months old and older are encouraged to get vaccinated. Pregnant women, those over 65 and people with chronic health condition are especially at risk. The Health Department said ample amounts of vaccine are available.
Vaccinations are covered by health insurance plans; those without insurance may have access to free- or low-cost shots through their county health departments.
While a vaccine doesn’t always prevent the flu, the Health Department said vaccinated people who get the flu can have milder symptoms.
The 2017-18 flu season was severe both locally and nationally; the CDC estimates there were 49 million flu cases nationwide, and 900,000 hospitalizations. For the first time since the current record-keeping system began in 2004, the CDC said people across the age spectrum were equally likely to be hospitalized last season.
There were also more than twice as many flu-related deaths as in an average year. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams reported in September that 80,000 people died of the flu or complications last winter, making it the most severe season in decades. The death toll included 180 children.
The severity of this year’s season remains unknown, officials said. Flu strains change from year to year, making predictions difficult, federal health officials noted.
In the wake of last flu season, the Health Department launched a new web page, the New York State Flu Tracker, which will be updated every Thursday. The site displays the number of laboratory-confirmed flu cases by county, week and influenza type (A, B, or unspecified) for the current season and three previous seasons.
For the week of Dec. 15, the most recent available, the numbers show a sharp increase in Saratoga County. The number of cases there rose from two the week of Dec. 1, to 15 the week of Dec. 8, to 28 the week of Dec. 15. It was the highest number of cases in the region.
The next-highest number was 10 confirmed cases during the week of Dec. 15 in Albany County; Schenectady, Montgomery and Schoharie counties reported two each; Fulton County reported one.
The true number of cases in all counties is certainly higher, since many flu cases aren’t reported to medical professionals, and still fewer are lab-confirmed.
Flu tracking starts in October and the season typically doesn’t peak until February or March. Last winter, the number of cases statewide exceed 10,000 per week from the end of January through early March, Health Department figures show.