Flu season shaping up to be one of the worst in years

Every flu season, Michele Caplinger takes measures to avoid the virus. She drinks plenty of fluids. She washes her hands at almost every turn. And she gets the flu shot — usually by October 1.

It’s a strategy that’s helped Smyrna resident avoid the flu year after year.

But not this time.

The day after Christmas, she was in bed, sick with the flu, for three days. “I felt like my body was beaten up head to toe. Everything hurt. Even my teeth hurt,” said Caplinger, senior executive director of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy, the organization that oversees the Grammy Awards.

The 2019-20 flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in years. And the flu vaccine may not be well matched to the viruses that are circulating, though experts say there’s still some benefit to getting the shot.

Almost 1 in 10 patient visits (9.5%) to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Jan. 4, according to the latest surveillance report from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Still, that marks a drop from 12.2% the week before. It’s unclear whether the flu season is peaking here or will continue to rage.

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

Influenza B, which often impacts children and young adults more than older adults, has been the dominant strain so far. However, limited testing data is suggesting this year’s flu vaccine is a better match for Influenza A, which is picking up in Georgia and across the country.

Typically, Influenza B strains emerge later in the season. But this flu season got off to an unusually early start, with sporadic cases cropping up in Georgia in August.

Flu levels are much higher now than 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.

The number of flu-related hospitalizations in metro Atlanta has reached 779 this season, and the number of flu-related deaths in Georgia has climbed to 22. Ten of those who have died were 49 or younger.

Paulding County is investigating whether two deaths there — a 17-year-old girl and a 29-year-old man — may be flu-related, said coroner Lindsey Eberhart Fuller.

This file photo shows the flu vaccine available at Conyers Pediatrics. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Dr. Sandra Ford started to worry that this might be harsh flu season when a handful of children were diagnosed with the illness during the late summer. Ford — district health director at the DeKalb County Board of Health and interim district health director at the Fulton County Board of Health — couldn’t recall multiple cases that early during her 15 years with the DeKalb department.

MORE: Should they stay or should they go; kids with flu pose parental puzzle

Flu vaccines are made each year to protect against three or four different kinds of flu virus. The ingredients are based on predictions of what strains will be circulating. Ford said it’s important for people to know that, even when a flu vaccine is not the best match, it’s still worth getting. “Some protection is better than no protection,” she said.

“One of my greatest frustrations is the number of flu illnesses, and even deaths, that take place in Georgia every year,” Ford said. “In metro Atlanta, a flu vaccine is available on nearly every block.”

And no, she said, the flu vaccine doesn’t give you the flu. The shot is made from an inactivated virus that can’t transmit infection.

The bottom line, experts said: If you haven’t been vaccinated against the virus this season, do it now.

While getting a vaccine earlier in the season is better, there could still be a lot of the season to go. Even if you get the flu anyway, chances are that the symptoms will be less severe. It takes about two weeks after the shot for antibodies to develop in the body to provide protection against influenza virus infection.

MORE: Why it’s not too late to get a flu shot

Meanwhile, Caplinger is on the mend. She couldn’t help thinking back to her last flight to Los Angeles, when she saw passengers on her plane using disinfecting wipes to clean the tray table, arm rests, the seat buckle.

She might start doing that, too, she said.

And, despite her misfortune this time, she’s still committed to the yearly flu shot. For her, experience is the best teacher.

“The time I got the flu and hadn’t yet gotten the flu shot, it was so exponentially worse,” she said. “Not only have I not changed my mind about the flu shot, but I am going to make a point of getting it early in the season.”

MORE: Tips from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta about the flu and when to take your child to the doctor for flu symptoms

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