This year’s flu season has now resulted in the deaths of at least 37 people in Georgia, including one minor, health officials said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
The deaths come in the middle of what has now become the most virulent and intense flu season since the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, state epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek said.
“This year we had very early flu activity and very high peaks of activity as well. What is unique ... is that all 49 states are experiencing widespread flu activity all at the same time. Very often what we see (are) pockets of increasing activity at different times. Here the whole nation got hit at the same time, including here in Georgia,” Drenzek said.
Drenzek said she hoped the season had peaked, but added that deaths and hospitalizations are still increasing, and expected at least several more weeks of high flu activity.
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“Flu is something we face every year. It’s not the common cold. It’s something to be reckoned with,” said Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal. “It’s terribly important for the public to understand that the best protection we have is the seasonal flu shot.”
O’Neal said the virus circulating this year, called H3N2, is a “pretty nasty” virus, and a serious one, but one that people can do their best to avoid.
That includes by getting the flu shot as well as practicing “those simple things that our grandmothers and mothers try to teach us,” like covering a sneeze and avoiding wiping your eyes and nose without washing your hands.
O’Neal said it was difficult to predict how effective the flu shot is while the season is occurring, but said even if it isn’t perfect, it will still provide protection from other strains of the flu and could moderate some of the symptoms of a strain that isn’t completely prevented.
“It’s not too late if in fact, one hasn’t taken it yet. It’s available at various areas across the state, but so are many people wanting to get it now, we’re recommending calling ahead,” he said. The commissioner also said antiviral drugs should be used in the early stages of the flu to prevent the possibility of worsening sickness, and it’s best if they can be started within the first two days.
Preventing symptoms from getting worse is becoming more and more of an issue as the state’s health system struggles to deal with this year’s brutal season.
Hospitals across Georgia are bursting at the seams to care for flu patients as well as all the other patients they must attend to, O’Neal said.
Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta even brought in a temporary, mobile emergency center to help deal with the overload.
About 671 people have been hospitalized in the eight county metro-Atlanta area alone for flu-like symptoms. The Georgia Department of Public health only tracks flu hospitalizations in that area.
For perspective: At this point in last year’s flu season, only 237 had been hospitalized and only one had died. Other years, such as 2014-2015, had higher death and hospitalization rates.
At last official count, at least 37 children have been killed by the flu virus this season in the U.S., and both hospitalizations and deaths are rising, not falling. Nationwide, nearly 12,000 people have been hospitalized for the flu, with people aged 65 and older the most common admittance.
In Georgia, the vast majority of flu deaths were of those aged 65 and older, followed by those in their 50s and early 60s.
On Jan. 26, the Centers for Disease control updated the nation on the flu epidemic, saying the viral activity was now as intense as the punishing 2014-2015 flu season and rivaled only by the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
Influenza intensity is rated on a scale of 1-10, and had been steadily rising for months before hitting level 10 two weeks before the new year. It has remained at level 10 intensity ever since. Every U.S. state except Hawaii is now experiencing “widespread” flu activity - the highest level the GDPH tracks.
One way to track flu activity is to look at how many people visit the doctor for flu symptoms. Usually, around 2 percent of outpatient visits are for flu or flu symptoms.
The national rate is now more than triple that, to nearly 7 percent of visits, according to the CDC. In Georgia, it was more than six times the average, from 2 percent to a distressing 12.4 percent.
Health officials strongly encouraged anyone 6 months old or older to get the vaccine as the “most important step in protecting against this serious disease.” An easy way to find out where to get the shot is by using VaccineFiner.
Flu symptoms can include some or all of the following:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults
Here are ways the Alabama Department of Public Health says you can prevent the flu:
- Get flu vaccine; it is not too late
- Stay at home if you have a fever
- Wash your hands
- Cover your cough and sneeze
- Clean and disinfect
You can also click here to learn more about how to tell the difference between the flu and a less serious illness like a common cold.