A sudden surge of flu cases recorded by Clark County health professionals has prompted those officials to caution residents flu season is far from over.
Infectious diseases have become a top priority for Clark County Combined Health District employees and local health care professionals, Anna Jean Petroff, Clark County Combined Health District Epidemiologist said, because of the sudden rise in numbers. Fourteen patients were hospitalized for flu in Clark County between Feb. 17 and Feb. 23 — the most recent data available. That was more than any other week so far this flu season and significantly higher than the five-year average of 6.6 cases, according to the health district stats.
“It’s not uncommon for there to be two peaks in a flu season,” said Petroff, Clark County Combined Health District Epidemiologist. “Typically, the first peak is larger than the second peak, but we’re actually seeing the opposite this year. This could be due to a number of things, but one likely explanation could be that our winter began pretty mild and we only recently started having the harsh weather that keeps people inside where illness can spread easier.”
Data provided by the Clark County health district shows over the last few weeks influenza hospitalizations have surpassed the five-year average. The new numbers are starkly different from those recorded during the weeks earlier in the flu season, when hospitalizations never topped the five-year average, according to the statistics.
Four people have died from infectious diseases in Clark County since the beginning of the year — two from the flu and two from hepatitis A.
Springfield Regional Medical Center hired a doctor — just before the start of flu season — devoted to curing communicable diseases to help curtail the spread throughout the community.
Dr. Luke Onuorah started in August and is focused on helping Clark County residents combat infectious diseases including the flu, hepatitis, pneumonia and other dangerous illnesses.
“Infectious diseases are as old as the study of medicine,” Dr. Onuorah said.
“It was something that was lacking in the community and the expertise that one brings is really needed because in the past those conditions had to be shipped to other hospitals because they didn’t have an infectious disease doctor,” he said.
Dr. Yamini Teegala, chief medical officer at Rocking Horse Community Health Center on the south side of Springfield, said the healthcare facility is constantly treating patients with the flu.
“This has been a pretty significant flu season and at Rocking Horse we have given over 2,000 vaccines,” she said.
Champaign County has had seven cases of the flu that led to hospitalizations in the last month, according to data from the Champaign County Health District. Last year, the county recorded around 40 cases.
On Friday, neighboring school district Yellow Springs canceled classes for its high school and middle school students due to an outbreak of the flu. Springfield City School District Spokeswoman Cherie Moore said the district has not experienced a large number of flu-related absences.
The local health district is also bracing for other types of contagious viruses to intrude the area. So far, only the flu and Hep A have caused deaths in Clark County.
But, cases of the measles have been reported throughout the country and it could be only a matter of time before it makes its way into Clark County, Petroff said.
“Communicable diseases spread quickly, and we know we have to be prepared,” Petroff said. “We want to start taking precautions now so we are ready.”
Flu deaths and hospitalizations
The 2017-2018 flu season was one of the most deadly in Clark County, according to data kept by the health district that goes back about 10 years.
Eight people died from the outbreak, according to the data, and more than 250 were hospitalized. Private practices in Springfield also saw patient after patient who was sick with the flu.
“Last year was the worst year that our practices had faced in as long as I have been here in 21 years,” said Dr. Joe Morman with Family Physicians Springfield.
The numbers for this flu season, that started in October and could last till the end of May, are down overall but rising.
“We’ve had a couple of waves. We’re back into another wave of flu now. I just had two active cases and a follow up from flu last week, all of which were diagnosed by testing,” Morman said. “The volume is picking up but not like last year’s numbers. Hopefully, it won’t be the second-worst season in my 21 years.”
There have been about 75 cases of flu hospitalizations since the beginning of the year, according to the health district stats. Between October and December, only 10 hospitalizations were recorded in Clark County.
Both flu-related deaths this flu season happened over the last six weeks, there have been more than 55 influenza-hospitalizations recorded.
The five-year average shows Clark County tends to see a decrease in flu hospitalizations beginning around this time and steadily falls as winter turns to spring. Health care professionals are warning residents that is not happening this year and that it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
“We are making an effort to improve our flu vaccine rates,” Teelaga said. “We are working to make parents more comfortable and motivated to get the flu vaccine for themselves and their children.”
Family Physicians Springfield deals mostly with adult medicine, Morman said, but the flu can affect anyone. He said right now would a good time to avoid large crowds if possible because the disease is easily spread.
“Be careful in airports or other places of large volume,” he said. “During outbreaks, think twice about the gatherings you go to. The virus is very contagious, the droplets spread and it can come from sneezes, coughs or contact with an infected surface.”
And if someone is starting to develop symptoms like a high fever, muscle aches and chills they should consider seeing a medical professional quickly, Morman said.
“If we can diagnose it for them we can get them better much quicker with fewer complications,” he said.
There have been 48 confirmed cases of hepatitis A in Clark County so far this year, health district stats say.
Two people have died as a result of the disease in the county, according to the health district. Those deaths took place in February.
RELATED COVERAGE: Hep. A cases in Clark County spreading like wildfire
In Champaign County, there have been seven confirmed cases recorded, according to Champaign Health District data. No flu related deaths have been reported in the county.
Hepatitis A is highly contagious and is spread by ingesting even a tiny amount of fecal matter.
Both health districts have been working with the most at-risk groups — the homeless, illicit drug users, those in jail and men who have sex with men, but the disease is spreading to those outside of these groups.
Before 2018, Clark County had not had a confirmed case of the Hep A since 2011. Just weeks ago, the health district was discovering new cases every day and a new case was reported last week to the Clark County Combined Health District.
Health officials said Hep A is preventable, but people need to take proper precautions. Vaccination is the best way to fight off the disease, and the vaccination series is covered by most insurance plans.
“Everybody needs to protect themselves and get vaccinated,” Teelaga said, adding the Clark County health division has done a good job with community outreach and getting people vaccines.
Outside of vaccinations, all health care professionals said frequent hand washing or hand sanitizer use can help prevent infectious disease like the flu and hepatitis A from continuing to spread throughout the area.