Flu activity down for second week in row but still high in Georgia

In what could signal a gentler flu season this year, flu activity continued to decline for the second consecutive week in Georgia.

Flu activity is unpredictable, and the levels are still considered high in the state. The Georgia Department of Public Health said 4 percent of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Jan. 12. But that's down from 5.5 percent of visits the week before, according to the most recent report released on Friday.

Kids R Kids Learning Academy day care students wash their hands following snack time at the center in Marietta recently. Experts say hand-washing is a key way to prevent spreading germs and getting sick. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Georgia’s 2017-18 flu season didn’t subside until the end of April. It claimed 154 lives statewide and led to more than 3,000 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta. Local health officials called it the worst outbreak in decades. The previous year saw nine flu-related deaths in Georgia.

Since the flu season began in early October, the illness has killed six people in Georgia — five adults and a child — and there have been 737 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to flu symptoms.

After flu rates climbed upward before Christmas, they have been steadily dropping. Several school systems, including those in Cherokee, Clayton and DeKalb County, said they are not seeing an uptick in flu cases. Susan Hale, spokesperson for Fulton County Schools, recently said she thinks the holiday vacation time helped “break the cycle of the virus spreading person to person at school.”

In the most recent data set from the Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia is one of a handful of states, including Kentucky, Colorado and New Jersey, experiencing high rates of the flu. But the overall trend line is moving in the right direction. Flu activity levels have declined in several states including Alabama, South Carolina and Florida, according to the CDC report released Friday.

It’s hard to say whether the flu this season will continue to decrease or tick back up in the coming weeks.

And it’s unknown why the flu season was so harsh last year.

The exterior of Carolinas MED-1 (right), a mobile medical facility located outside of the Marcus trauma and emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Grady Memorial Hospital made national news last year when the hospital set up an emergency room trailer. It was a jarring sign of the flu epidemic’s out-of-control spread. This year may not be so bad, but the mobile unit at Grady, officially called Atrium Health’s Carolinas MED-1, worked out well enough that the hospital was glad to bring it back. The Grady ER is usually near capacity, and flu season tips it over.

MORE: Grady's ER trailer returns to combat flu

Each year, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, tens of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from a flu-related illness. This costs an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and an additional $16.3 billion in lost earnings annually, according to the CDC.

Grady Memorial hospital chief of emergency medicine Dr. Hany Atallah answers questions inside the Carolinas MED-1, a mobile medical facility. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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About half of Americans get annual flu shots. In recent years, flu vaccination rates have been on the rise, standing at about 60 percent for children and about 42 percent for adults.

— Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.

In this December photo, TaJuana Ray, curriculum coordinator of pre-K at Kids R Kids, operates a ZONO Sanitizing cabinet at the Learning Academy day care center in Marietta. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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