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How bad is this year's flu? Statistics say five times as bad

Schools, medical professionals so far not disrupted by national flu trend

Jan. 14, 2013

Influenza has become a hot topic well before its more common mid-February arrival.

From Boston declaring a public health emergency to recent reports of Milwaukee diverting ambulances away from flu-full emergency rooms, this flu season has already made a statement as outbreaks occur across the United States.

Waukesha County is seeing the same outbreak of Influenza A H3N2 as the rest of the country, and in similar strength to its Southeastern Wisconsin counterparts, according to Andre Tells, infection control nurse with ProHealth Care.

"What we're experiencing in Waukesha County is in line with what we're seeing in Southeastern Wisconsin," Tells said. "We have high activity and a widespread outbreak. This area has the highest activity in the state."

The flu, which usually starts to peak around mid-February or early March, really started to spread this year in mid-December, according to Tells. That has been a contributing factor to the numbers racking up so far this season.

ProHealth Care has already seen five times as many influenza-related hospitalizations this flu season as it saw last flu season, according to Tells.

"We saw 20 hospitalizations for influenza all of last season (at ProHealth). From mid-December until now we have had more than 100," Tells said.

Big numbers

Nancy Healy-Haney, Waukesha County Public Health Division manager, said there were 58 county hospitalizations for flu last year. This year, she has already reported 118 hospitalizations for influenza to the Center for Disease Control.

Statewide the same trend is occurring. Since Oct. 5, 2012, Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported more than twice as many confirmed cases of influenza then in all of the 2011-12 flu season. Hospitalizations so far this season are also a staggering 971 more than all of last season combined.

The last time the flu was being reported at the rates it is today was in the 2003-04 flu season, which was also attributed to the H3N2 strain, according to Healy-Haney.

Hospitals managing well

Peggy Eckart, manager of infection control at ProHealth Care, said they anticipated that the peak has not yet arrived, though there is no need to worry yet about outbreaks here reaching Boston or even Milwaukee levels.

"We are managing the flow of patients and have not had to divert services to other hospitals," Eckart said. "However, there is a system in place with other (hospitals) in the area to manage who is diverting and who can help to ensure the best patient care is available."

While ProHealth Care has seen busier-than-normal waiting areas in the emergency and urgent care areas, Eckart said it has not disrupted service or caused dramatically increased wait times.

Tells refuted reports that Tamiflu - commonly prescribed to patients with confirmed cases of flu within 48 hours of their symptoms - is in danger of running low if this trend continues.

"The State of Wisconsin maintains a stock to make sure it's available throughout the state when needed," Tells said.

Even though the outbreak has already begun, the flu shot, which contains an inactive H3N2 virus along with two other strains, is still strongly recommended.

While Healy-Haney admits the shot is only about 60 percent effective, she said that being sick and very sick makes all the difference. Tells said that while patients who have received the shot may still be coming in with the flu, the benefits of receiving the shot are important.

"It still is recommended because it can reduce the symptoms," Tells said. "The state recommends that there is still time to be vaccinated in hopes it will prevent spreading."

Demand up for flu shots

At Tobin's Pharmacy in Oconomowoc, they have been out of the flu shot since mid-November. However, that hasn't stopped people from calling.

"We've been fielding five to 10 calls a day regarding the flu shot lately," said Dave Schultz, a pharmacist at Tobin's.

Schultz explained that while the pharmacy has seen a recent increase in flu-related prescriptions, there are other ways some patients are choosing to fight the flu.

"There are natural products that have antibacterial qualities and immune boosters that people are choosing to shorten the symptoms and help the severity," Schultz said.

No epidemic locally

Laura Heidelmeier, Mukwonago School District nurse, seems to agree with that sentiment.

"Currently absences are about the same," Heidelmeier said. "There's always an increase right after the holidays."

Heidelmeier explained that while the school always takes precautions such as using custodial cleaning to kill germs on a routine basis and encouraging hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer, they are monitoring the situation a little more closely because of reports about the severity of this year's flu season.

David Hammelman, employee services director with the Kettle Moraine School District, has seen his student absences only slightly elevated, and teacher absenteeism for personal or family illness is in line with what it has been.

"It's not a huge problem right now, at least not yet," Hammelman said. "From what we're hearing, I am concerned for six weeks or a month from now."

Angie Bolson, branch executive director at the YMCA at Pabst Farms, said that the staff has been paying close attention to prevention.

"We've definitely increased on sanitizing, paying more attention to small items such as handles, railings and door knobs," Bolson said.

According to Bolson, the YMCA has put up posters with flu information, and are keeping an eye out for the symptoms especially in the children's area though her membership and attendance has remained consistent.

Stay home

Other medical professionals could not agree more. Influenza can be contagious for seven days.

"People who feel sick at all should just stay home and rest," Tells said. "If you're feeling sick it's not the time to go shopping or run errands. The strain is strong."

Some key signs you have the flu are a substantial cough with a high fever and often body aches. According to Tells, sometimes the fever has not been appearing until day two or three.

"There's no question that you feel sick, and you are sick," Eckart said. "You should check in with a medical provider such as your regular physician."

Eckart explained that using emergency services should only be used in extreme or unique cases. Often physicians will be able to prescribe an antiviral if caught early. Then, it's just good old-fashioned rest.

Influenza Cases


2011-12 confirmed influenza cases: 2,034

This season (Oct. 5-Jan 4.) confirmed cases: 4,249

2011-12 confirmed influenza hospitalizations: 389

This season confirmed cases: 1,360

Waukesha County

2011-12 confirmed influenza hospitalizations: 58

This season confirmed cases: 118

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Weekend Happenings

Featured this week:  

Water’s Edge Open House: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. May 21, Smokey’s Muskie Shop, N27 W27250 Woodland Dr., Pewaukee. Free food and boat rides. See the boats, and meet the staff.

“Ernest in Love”: 7:30 p.m. May 21, Oconomowoc Arts Center, 641 East Forest Street, Oconomwoc.  The musical adaptation of Wilde’s classic, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”  Featuring Angela Iannone as Lady Bracknell. $30 adults, $26 seniors, $14 college students and younger.

International Musicians: 3 p.m. May 22, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 800 Lake Drive, Oconomowoc. Concert featuring musicians from around the world. Free.


Jubilate Chorale: 4 p.m. May 22, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 145 E. Lisbon Road, Oconomowoc. Concert featuring beautiful music with texts that point to the indomitable human spirit and offer hope for the difficult times we face. The 32-voice Chorale welcomes the Children’s Choir of Waukesha and several area instrumentalists as special guests. Visit www.jubilatechorale.org for ticket information. $12-17.

All weekend happenings