Kristen Earley, a nurse at the Clark County Combined Health District, gets a flu shot ready for Braylinne Muhammad, 11, at the Health District offices. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

Flu activity picks up in Georgia as death toll rises

The pager for Dr. Jamie Woods Green seemed to vibrate almost nonstop on Christmas with calls pouring in from parents of sick children with high fevers, vomiting and fatigue.

The Conyers pediatrician knows to expect a handful of flu-related illnesses on any given day around the holidays. But this was more than usual – a lot more.

“I was actively trying to talk to parents about what to do, and whether their child could be treated at home or should go to the ER,” she said, “and before I got off the phone, my pager was vibrating again. It was pretty astounding, really.”

And it has barely let up since.

The 2019-20 flu season got off to a fast start, and the number of cases has been steadily rising over the past several weeks. Health officials say flu activity is widespread, and many are are concerned that there could be even more of an uptick after the holiday break, when kids return to school.

Almost 1 in 10 patient visits (9.6%) to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Dec. 21, according to the latest surveillance report from the Georgia Department of Public Health. That marks a jump from 6.7% the week before.

Flu levels are much higher than around this time during the previous two flu seasons. That includes the brutal 2017-2018 flu season, which turned out to be one of the worst on record with 145 people in the state dying from flu-related causes and more than 3,000 people in metro Atlanta hospitalized for flu-related illnesses. Flu activity didn’t surge that season until after Christmas.

Meanwhile, the number of flu-related hospitalizations in metro Atlanta has reached 387 this season, and the number of flu-related deaths in Georgia has climbed to seven. Four of those who have died were 49 or younger.

Georgia is one of 25 states with high flu activity, according to the latest surveillance report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those other states include Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky and Louisiana.

A rough flu season in Australia had medical experts on high alert for potentially the same in the U.S. Australia, which saw an earlier-than-usual peak of flu cases, was hit hard with a particularly virulent flu strain, H3N2, which generally causes more severe illness, especially in older people.

Public health experts stress that the Australian flu season doesn’t always predict the U.S. one. Even within the U.S., there can be regional differences. Flu activity here typically peaks between December and February.

“It’s always unique and always hard to predict,” said Ted M. Ross, the director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology. “It could fade away after holiday break. Odds are, it will continue to increase, and when kids return to school we will see large increases in flu cases.”

MORE: UGA gets major funding to develop universal flu vaccine

Influenza B is the predominant strain in Georgia and across the country, though multiple strains are circulating, according to the CDC.

An influenza vaccine poster is displayed at Conyers Pediatrics in Conyers. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The flu season usually starts to recede in March but can extend into May — as it did last flu season.

Experts say it’s not too late to get a flu shot. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body, according to the CDC.

The vaccine can offer protection even if you come down with the illness. It lessens the severity of the flu and reduces the chance of experiencing complications, health officials said. Getting a vaccine also can shorten the length of the illness if you do get sick.

That’s something Dr. Green is seeing first hand. She said children with the flu who have not had a flu shot generally have higher fevers of 103 and 104 degrees and have more severe symptoms, including vomiting and difficulty eating. Her young patients who were vaccinated this season tend to have fevers of around 101, more mild symptoms and are recovering more quickly.

The flu causes fever, headache, muscle pain and can lead to complications such as pneumonia, which can be serious and even deadly. Each year, 5% to 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu. Seniors, young children and people with chronic health conditions are at most risk for serious flu-related complications, but the flu also kills healthy people every year.

Healthy Living: Cold/Flu Season Soothers

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