Health officials declared Friday that Georgia is in the midst of a flu epidemic, the likes of which havent been seen in nearly a decade. And, they say, the worst is probably yet to come.
But even as sick people continue to stream to doctors offices and emergency rooms, theres still a chance to get a flu vaccination that could ward off the worst of the illnesses.
If you have not gotten sick yet, get your vaccine, said Judy McChargue, a nurse and the immunization coordinator for the North Central Health District, which includes most of Middle Georgia.
Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the agency, said flu is at increased levels over previous years.
It seems to be a manageable increase at this point, but we are encouraging people to get flu shots, because in Georgia the flu season typically peaks January-February. Most of the time its closer to February. If people get flu vaccines now, it takes two weeks to get immunity built up from that vaccine, she said.
Dr. Gary Godlewski, an emergency room physician at Coliseum Medical Center and Coliseum Northside Hospital, said this years flu season may become one of the busiest hes seen in more than two decades inside Macon emergency rooms. He estimated that influenza, and influenza-like illnesses have boosted emergency room traffic by 25 percent. Of those, many people have been sick for several days, when drugs dont work well.
The earlier onset of having any symptoms such as high fevers or intense body ache or the chills is the best time to be seen, because the flu treatment is not very good after about 48 hours of symptoms, Godlewski said. The sooner we can get the medicine in you, the better the likelihood we can reduce the intensity and duration of the flu.
Godlewski said most years he sees little flu before mid-January, but he saw many cases in October and November, then a lull, and now a return of sick patients. A flu-like cold virus is also running around, but about half the cases he sees are actual influenza.
Georgia doesnt directly track every actual case of influenza, but it uses a volunteer network of clinics to track influenza-like illnesses.
In a report issued Friday, 4.3 percent of people visiting a doctor had one of those influenza-like illnesses in the latest week of statistics. Thats down about 0.9 percent from the previous week, but remains substantially above the regular 2.8 percent.
Dr. Patrick ONeal, director of the Division of Health Protection for Georgias Department of Public Health, said in a statement that the hospitalizations remain high and the peak may not have come yet.
We are seeing some decrease in flu activity, but we are still at epidemic level and the flu is unpredictable, ONeal said in the statement. We are getting reports of more severe flu effects in neighboring states, including the number of deaths. Two flu-related deaths have been reported in Georgia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with confirmed or suspected flu who are more at risk should get antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu or Relenza. Those people include young children, elderly, pregnant women, and people who are already hospitalized, seriously ill or have a high risk of serious influenza-related complications. On Thursday, the CDC reported that a syrup form of Tamiflu was already back ordered, though capsules remain in good supply.
Vaccines can help avoid getting an influenza infection, or make one less severe. Georgia officials also recommended frequent handwashing with soap and water, covering the nose and mouth while coughing, and avoiding touching your face. McChargue also said people need to look out for others.
If you think you have the flu, stay home. Dont go on spreading it, she said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.