The holiday season has been quickly replaced by the influenza season, which is hitting Georgia and the nation harder, and earlier, than usual.
National and local officials are reporting stark increases over last year in the number of hospitalizations and emergency room visits because of flu-like symptoms. The onslaught started as early as November.
“Each flu season is unpredictable and unique onto itself,” said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There is no explaining why it starts early or late,” he said.
“But if the level of activity continues at the rate we are at now, we are looking at a moderate to severe flu season. Only time will tell.”
Skinner said activity has been steadily increasing over the last few weeks, especially in the South and Southeast, “and we expect it to continue to increase for a number of weeks to come.” Flu cases generally peak in late January or early February.
“Bottom line?” Skinner said. “The flu season is upon us.”
Georgia is one of 29 states with high levels of flu activity, according to the CDC. From the first week of October, when the flu season officially began, through the end of the year, 2,122 confirmed cases were reported to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
At Piedmont Hospital, the emergency room has been hopping, with some flu cases showing up as early as August, said Dr. Patricia H. Meadors, the network director for the emergency department. It is the worst flu season she has seen since she graduated from medical school 36 years ago, she said.
The number of flu patients jumped from 30 in November to 80 in December – including many people who showed up with advanced cases, which often include pneumonia.
“This is very atypical,” Meadors said. “We are getting a marked increase in the number of people coming into the ER. We have been inundated since Thanksgiving. Setting records. And we feel like we haven’t even hit our peak yet.”
It’s much the same for the WellStar System, said Dr. Marcia Delk, senior vice president for safety and quality for WellStar. In November, the last month for which figures are readily available, the system admitted 170 patients for the flu. The tally for the previous November was just 20.
Although numbers for December are still incomplete, Delk said that at mid-month WellStar doctors were administering flu tests at three times the normal rate.
“The season is earlier than we have seen and the surge has been greater. December has really been intense,” Delk said. “We don’t know where the peak is yet.”
A spokeswoman for Grady Memorial Hospital said doctors there also are seeing an increase in the number of patients coming into the emergency room complaining of flu-like symptoms.
Nationwide, an average of between 36,000 and 40,000 people die annually from the flu and its complications.
“Which is why, although influenza is common and we see it every year, it has to be taken seriously,” said Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection for the Georgia Department of Public Health.
In the last week of December alone, there were 59 flu-related hospitalizations in the metro Atlanta area, O’Neal, said. His office monitors hospitalizations, mainly in metro Atlanta, to determine statewide trends.
Despite the surge in cases, “we are more fortunate than other states, as we had only one (flu-related) death last year,” O’Neal said.
Officials stress that it is not too late to get a flu vaccine.
“The cases we are seeing seem to be pretty well matched to strains available in the flu vaccine,” O’Neal said. “That is a good thing, and hopefully, people will continue to get immunized.”
The predominant strain so far this season has been H3N2, which is included in the latest vaccine. H1N1, which is especially deadly, is also included in the vaccine but has shown scant appearances. It was H1N1 that was responsible for the worst year in recent memory, the 2009-10 flu season.
In the United States, during the last week of December, 2,961 people tested positive for influenza. Of those, 52 percent had H3N2 and only 1 percent had H1N1.
“The feeling has been that the flu vaccine is a nice match,” Delk said. “We feel like it has been effective.”
Meadors, of Piedmont Hospital, estimates that flu vaccines work effectively in about 70 percent of the people who receive them. Effectiveness varies based on several factors, including age, health and the condition of the individual’s immune system.
Unfortunately, the vaccine doesn’t work for anybody who doesn’t take it.
Kecia Ellick, a graduate student at Clayton State University, said vaccines make her sick. So she refused to get one before boarding a plane to Chicago for the holidays.
“When I got to Chicago, I had body aches, chills, I was freezing, I had heavy congestion in head and chest, bad sinuses, I could not sit up,” she said. “And the flight back to Atlanta was horrible, because I was in pain and the congestion was worse.”
Ellick said she has been sick for at least 10 days, and although the symptoms have subsided, she still has a heavy cough and has not had the strength to work on her thesis. Her daughter also got sick. Ellick took her daughter to the doctor, but she still hasn’t seen one herself.
“I think it is just the mother in me,” Ellick said. “I always think that everybody else should go to the doctor, but I will be fine. And I didn’t think I was as sick as my daughter was.”