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Just how bad is the flu this year?

Jan. 15, 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

Pat Vandehey, owner of Miller Pharmacy in Mukwonago, said media coverage has affected the demand for flu shots.

"If the community hasn't gotten them yet, now they are all calling," Vandehey said. "We are keeping a stock and are able to treat as needed."

Vandehey also pointed out that while the pharmacy has seen an increase she feels it is not an epidemic in this area, by any means.

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."

Geoff Mertens, the executive director of the YMCA in Mukwonago, said that he is not worried about the flu and is actually encouraging people to come in.

"I think instead of avoiding public places, some people are choosing to come to the gym knowing that being healthy helps keep the immune system strong and prevents illness," Mertens said. "We always encourage members and staff to wipe down equipment and provide materials to sanitize, so I feel our daily practice is all we need (to prevent the flu)."

According to Tells, about 90 percent of those hospitalized with the flu were age 65 or older; however LindenGrove's residents have not expressed much concern, according to Karen Sautbine, a registered nurse at the facility. The organization has noticed an increase in influenza like illness, but Sautbine said that last year was mild, and this year is consistent with what a normal year would look like. LindenGrove's residents and employees all receive the flu vaccine and have a prevention plan in place. Also, Sautbine encourages sick relatives and guests to reschedule their visits.

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.

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