The number of flu cases in the Augusta area remains low and appear to be declining nationwide – particularly in South Carolina – but officials caution that much of the flu season remains and appears to hit seniors the hardest.
“We’re in the middle of flu season, about halfway through, and it is shaping up to be a worse than average season and a bad season, particularly for the elderly,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the CDC’s latest flu report, released Friday, the rate of seniors hospitalized with lab-confirmed influenza A H3N2 jumped from 69.8 per 100,000 to 82.1 per 100,000, “which is really quite a high rate,” Frieden said. The overall rate of hospitalization for flu is about 18.8 per 100,000 this flu season.
That tends to happen in H3N2-dominated seasons, Frieden said. Even if cases keep falling, the rate of hospitalizations and deaths could continue to rise because there is a lag between infection and its consequences.
“We expect to see both the number and the rates of both hospitalizations and deaths rise further in the next week or so as the flu epidemic progresses and people have the complications of the illness,” he said.
Vera Misenheimer knows what a bad flu season is like. In 1968, she was sickened with the Hong Kong flu pandemic strain that killed 33,000 people that year.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Misenheimer, 94, from her bed at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics, where she was recently hospitalized with a case of influenza A H3N2 virus.
Georgia and South Carolina are reporting widespread status, meaning half or more of counties are seeing flu.
Georgia continues to report high levels but the people with flulike illness showing up for treatment dropped for the second consecutive week from 4.3 percent to 3.68
percent, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Cases in South Carolina have declined but that doesn’t mean the vigilance will drop, said Jim Beasley, the spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“What we recognize is sometimes little dips occur and it can come back in waves,” he said. “We’re continuing to keep our guard up and we remind folks that influenza activity in South Carolina is still widespread. Even if there are areas of the state where we’re not getting reports of influenza, it is still present.
“We ask folks to take the precautions necessary to continue to protect themselves.”
Tracking by genetic sequencing of patient samples at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics show a peak in November and just two confirmed cases so far in January.
“This was an unusually early season,” said Dr. James Wilde, a faculty member in emergency medicine and pediatrics at Georgia Regents University.
Even when the dominant influenza A strain begins to fade, however, that doesn’t mean flu season is over, he said.
“What often happens is you get a secondary peak in (influenza) B,” Wilde said. “But it doesn’t get to the same levels as the height of the A season.”