Influenza — seasonal sore throat, fatigue and muscle aches — is widespread in New York state this winter.
“It’s definitely picking up,” said Dr. Debra Blog, director of the state Health Department’s division of epidemiology, responsible for communicable disease control.
“Unfortunately,” she added, “we can’t give you a total picture of the flu season until it’s more toward the end because we still don’t know when it’s going to peak. We still don’t know the number of deaths or pediatric deaths or all the parameters, what they’re going to be in total until we get the big picture. But it’s on the way up, and it continues to be widespread throughout the state.”
Blog said every county in the state has reported flu cases during the late autumn and early winter. According to the Health Department’s influenza surveillance report, 2,669 laboratory-confirmed flu cases were recorded for the week ending Jan. 25. A total of 457 people were admitted to hospitals during the week, a 21 percent decrease from the previous week.
For the same time period in 2013, 2,909 flu cases were reported in New York.
One child death has been attributed to influenza so far this season.
New York may not be in a crisis situation, but Blog believes “crisis” is a matter of perspective.
“I personally think flu is always of crisis. It’s an epidemic that we have every year,” she said. “If everyone got their flu shot, it may be tempered every year, but so many people don’t get it, and that’s unfortunate.”
California’s influenza numbers may suggest a crisis. That state’s Department of Public Health this week announced that the number of confirmed flu-related deaths so far this season has reached 147, four of them children. California reported 106 deaths for the entire 2012-13 influenza season.
Blog said she was not aware of any New York counties that had reported extreme numbers of flu cases. Capital Region reports, she added, have been similar to numbers in other parts of the state.
Influenza can peak anytime during the cold weather season.
“It has peaked as early as October,” Blog said. “It can peak into March. I think on average, the most common time for peaking is usually December through February.”
Health officials will not receive an assessment on effectiveness of the influenza vaccine until spring.
“We can tell you the predominant strain that’s been circulating so far is the H1N1 strain [swine flu] that is contained in the flu vaccine,” Blog said. “So it appears to be well-matched.”
The H1N1 strain, she added, caused the pandemic flu outbreak during the 2009-10 season.
“That tends to affect individuals more like 18 to 64, as opposed to the very old and very young, which is typical,” she said.
“We’ve seen a fair amount of disease in young adults,” Blog said. “That is consistent with the H1N1 strain. We’ll see if that turns out to be true for the entire season.”
Dr. Samuel Bosco, chief of emergency medicine at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, said doctors and nurses are seeing people with flu symptoms on a daily basis.
“In the past six weeks or so, we’ve seen a big uptick in terms of frequency of people presenting with flu symptoms and flu diagnosis,” he said. “It does seem to be more of the H1N1 variety.”
This flu season has been worse than the 2012-13 season at St. Peter’s, “but I don’t think it’s the worst flu season we’ve ever seen,” Bosco said.
The illness is serious enough that St. Peter’s has posted signs in the hospital advising that young children or anyone with flu symptoms should not be visiting patients.
People who have been fortunate enough to avoid the flu this year should know their luck can change. Flu symptoms include fatigue, malaise, sore throat, muscle aches and body pains.
“It tends to be worse than a cold and comes on more suddenly than a cold,” Blog said. “A cold can make you feel pretty lousy, but the flu makes you feel worse.”
People can still get vaccinations, even in February.
“Most people are not too motivated by the time April comes around, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get it if they have the opportunity and the disease is still circulating,” she said.
People can improve their odds against influenza infection by getting plenty of rest, Blog said, and by washing their hands frequently. Staying home from work or school is a good idea for someone who is feeling sick; if they have the flu, they won’t spread germs to other people.