Jerry Grier, 48, already has a surgical mask on by the time Dr. Bo Sherwood sees him Monday in an exam room at University Prompt Care in North Augusta, where patients with flu-like symptoms are urged to get one to discourage spreading their illness.
“I’m not feeling too good,” Grier said, as he ticks off symptoms of coughing, sore throat and a headache.
“It sounds like flu,” Sherwoood concludes, even though Grier has gotten his flu shot. Even if it is less effective than hoped, with potentially months ahead of flu circulating it is still worth getting the shot, officials said.
This flu season has been worse than some of the previous two or three seasons, Sherwood said.
“There is definitely more this year in comparison, both outpatient flu diagnoses positive and inpatient admissions for the flu and flu complications,” he said. “Both have gone way up.”
Part of that may be due to the predominant strain of the flu that is circulating, Sherwood said.
“The strain itself appears to be more virulent, maybe even more contagious,” he said.
As of Jan. 6, the latest week that has been analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 86 percent of the flu strains identified are influenza A and of those 84.9 percent are A H3N2. That strain typically causes more severe flu seasons and flu is now widespread across the continental U.S. and Alaska, the CDC reported in last week’s FluView.
The last very severe flu season was in 2014-15 and was also one where H3N2 dominated, said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division and the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at CDC. But based on past years when that strain has been the major source of misery, the season is likely peaking now and activity will start to fall, he said.
In 2014-15 and in 2012-13, both H3N2 seasons, the peak came at the beginning of the year and then fell off rapidly after that, compared to seasons where it happened a month or two later and were much less severe, according to CDC data. Sherwood said he could see that happen again this flu season.
“If that trend holds, and I think it probably will, you’ll see a little bit of fall-off in the next 10-14 days, we hope,” he said.
But even with that peak, there could still be 11-13 more weeks of flu season, Jernigan warned.
“That means there is a whole lot more flu to go this season,” he said.
That alone should be a reason for people to get vaccinated now even if the vaccine is not up to its usual standards of protection, Jernigan and Sherwood said. While normally the vaccine would be at least 50 percent effective or higher, this season’s vaccine is probably in the upper 30s, Sherwood said. CDC is still in the midst of enrolling people into its clinical trial to test the effectiveness and those results won’t be available at least until mid-February but preliminary evidence is it is in the 30s, Jernigan said.
“Say the flu shot is 38 percent effective,” Sherwood said. “That’s not great but it is much better than zero. Also, studies have shown that if you have the flu shot, you may not have quite as bad a bout with the flu if you have that flu shot.”
Because of the number of cases around Augusta, alternatives like the anti-viral medication Tamiflu are quickly becoming scarce, he said.
“Tamiflu is becoming a problem as far as availability,” Sherwood said.
Manufacturers shipped 151 million doses this flu season “so it should be readily available,” CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213