CDC: Flu hospitalizations highest in recent years

The rate of hospitalizations from flu this season is the highest seen in recent years and influenza-like activity continues to climb as one of the worst flu seasons in recent years continues, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. But in Georgia and in Augusta. there are signs that flu activity may be peaking, although it is still high and intensive care units remain full, hospital officials said.

 

Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said this season’s cumulative rate of hospitalizations is the highest since it began its current tracking system in 2010, and is surpassing even that of the 2014-15 flu season, a particularly nasty one that was also when the influenza A H3N2 strain dominated and 710,000 people were hospitalized. Also concerning is that about half of the hospitalizations in children are in previously healthy children with no underlying conditions, she said.

“Right now, one of the biggest health threats we are facing is influenza,” said Schuchat, who assumed the interim post when CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald abruptly resigned this week. “This season is a somber reminder of why flu is one of the world’s greatest public health challenges and why we at CDC focus so intensely on efforts to fight flu.”

The hospitalization rate climbed to 51.4 per 100,000 for the week ending Jan. 27, up from 43.5 the previous week, and the amount of influenza-like illness showing up at doctor’s offices and Emergency Rooms went from 6.6 percent to 7.1 percent, said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. The influenza-like illness rate is still below the peak of 7.7 percent seen in the 2009 pandemic influenza season and that of the 2002-2003 season peak of 7.6 percent.

One small bit of good news was Oregon was no longer reporting widespread flu activity and there is a chance that flu is peaking in the Western U.S., Schuchat said.

In Georgia, flu may also be peaking, although activity is still very high, said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief patient safety officer for AU Medical Center. Hospitalizations in the Atlanta area saw a slight drop from the previous week and the number of patients showing up in the Emergency Departments has stabilized, he said.

But “flu still remains very high among children and we’re still seeing large numbers of pediatric patients,” Coule said. “We’re still way above the normal seasonal influenza levels with the volumes we’re seeing,” he said.

The hospital’s ICUs are still strained with flu patients and they are getting requests from facilities as far away as Myrtle Beach and Alabama to take ICU patients, Coule said. At University Hospital, about a quarter of patients coming to the Emergency Department are getting admitted to the hospital and “a lot of that is from the flu,” said Dr. Steve Currier, medical director for the department. “We’re seeing real difficulty because we are filling up all of the hospitals in the area.”

That is happening all over the state, he said.

“The ERs are overwhelmed and the hospitals are full up,” Currier said. “I’ve never seen it like this before.”

He was hopeful that the season was peaking when the number of patients in the hospital dipped last weekend but last night it seemed that flu cases were still pouring in. Volumes in the ED have dropped slightly but that could be due to healthier patients staying home and “toughing it out or we are seeing it drop off a little bit,” Currier said.

The flu season does not appear to have peaked but it can be difficult to tell when that happens, said Dr. Hetal Thakore, medical director of the hospitalist program for Doctors Hospital of Augusta.

“It’s been a fairly constant influx of flu cases,” he said. “I can’t say that I have noticed it calming down by any means.”

Still, Coule was taking a cautious but somewhat optimistic outlook on the flu season ahead.

“I’m hoping that the worst of it is over,” he said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com

Not everyone who gets the flu needs to go to the Emergency Room or get medical treatment unless they are at higher risk of flu complications, such as the elderly, young children and those with underlying medical conditions such as asthma. The American College of Emergency Physicians said you should seek medical attention if you or your child develops these warning signs:

In adults:

• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath;

• Chest pain or abdominal pain;

• Sudden dizziness;

• Confusion;

• Severe or persistent vomiting;

• Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough;

• Swelling in the mouth or throat;

• Weakness.

In children, one particularly troubling sign is if it appears the child was sick and was getting better but then suddenly gets much worse, which could be a sign the child has developed a bacterial pneumona, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other signs for children include:

• Fast breathing or trouble breathing;

• Bluish skin color;

• Not drinking enough fluids;

• Not waking up or not interacting;

• Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held;

• Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough;

• Fever with a rash.

Other warning signs in children include trouble breathing, inability to eat, crying without tears, and much fewer wet diapers than normal.

The death toll from flu continues to rise in this severe season. Nationally, the percent of deaths due to pneumonia and influenza rose from 9.1 percent to 9.7 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday. In South Carolina, the number of deaths increased by 38, with eight of those deaths coming the previous week, to now 84 for this flu season, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported this week. In Georgia, the number of death had reached 51, up from 25 the previous week.

The influenza-like illness rate in Georgia was 14.3 percent, up from 12.4 the previous week. South Carolina was 15.4 percent, up from 13.3.

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