Swine flu levels off in Georgia

The swine flu monster seems to be retreating from Georgia -- for the time being, as hospitals, health agencies and schools report fewer cases.

But health officials say it's too early to tell if the spate of swine flu has crested, and they worry that another wave may come deeper into the flu season or the spring.

So keep those vaccinations coming, they say.

"Yes, we are seeing a decrease" in emergency room patients showing swine flu symptoms, said Ravae Graham, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Health.

Schools are also seeing less illness in the classroom.

"It's leveling off right now," said state Education Department spokesman Matt Cardoza. "We've seen fewer high-percentage absenteeism at schools."

The swine flu, which emerged in April, appeared to peak in Georgia in late September, when 81 Georgians were hospitalized and eight died from the virus in a week. The number dropped to 43 hospitalizations and one death in a week in mid-October, according to DCH figures.

Health officials say people should still obtain the vaccine for swine flu. Limited quantities are being distributed to doctors offices, county health clinics and other health care providers.

Many people say they are disappointed about the spotty availability of swine flu vaccine. The state health agency had initially expected two million doses of vaccine by the end of this month, but, because of lagging national production, now expects half that number. More is expected to follow.

doctors say it is too early to drop precautions such as frequent hand-washing.

"We are still seeing pockets of it," said Cobb County schools spokesman Jay Dillon. "It's too early to say the crisis has passed."

He believes the downturn was helped by  schools that pushed to educate kids and families about good flu hygiene.

Georgia's recent decrease in swine flu illness is in tune with a down-tick across the Southeast, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But CDC officials warned that the decrease only arrived in about the past week, so they are hesitant to draw any broad conclusions.

The illness nationally continues to trend upward, the CDC said.

President Barack Obama declared the swine flu a national emergency Saturday. The move provides legal waivers for hospitals and other health providers so they can handle large numbers of sick people.

Swine flu illness has largely centered around children, and health experts had predicted cases would spike after Georgia began its school year in early August. Georgia and the Southeast began the school year several weeks before much of the nation, but officials say it is too early to say the illness peaked here.

Dr. Jim Fortenberry, pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said the health system saw a “record surge” in patients at the emergency departments with flu symptoms in late August and early September.

Although those numbers have dropped, they remain well above the norm for this time of year.

“We’ve seen some relief  but H1N1 is still there and we can’t let our guard down,” Fortenberry said.

Emory University set up a dormitory as a voluntary quarantine for students who were sick. During the height of the outbreak about 50 students were there, officials said.

No one is there now, but the college has no immediate plans to shut down the dorm.

Staff writer Laura Diamond contributed to this report.