Hospitals busy as flu strikes early

Ohio reported 98 influenza-related hospitalizations last month — up 200 percent from the same month a year ago — underscoring the national trend in which flu activity has spiked earlier and harder this season than at any time in the past decade.

States reporting flu activity, including hospitalizations, emergency room visits and positive tests for the flu virus, more than doubled last week to 19 from eight states in the previous week as flu activity increased at the fastest pace since the 2003-2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

In Ohio, the flu is spreading at such a rapid rate that state health officials last week upgraded the level of flu activity in the state from “regional” to “widespread.”

“We’re seeing an increasing number of hospitalizations that are associated with influenza, (and) cases of influenza are occurring a lot earlier than we usually start seeing them,” said Dr. Mary DiOrio, state epidemiologist for the Ohio Department of Health. “Typically in Ohio, we don’t see our peak until later in the winter, like January or February.”

The number of flu cases across the state is likely to be even higher than figures suggest because every patient who visits a doctor with flu-like symptoms is not required to be reported to the health department unless they are tested and have positive results.

Still, positive tests are up, especially among the children and seniors who are the most vulnerable to infection, said Terrie Koss, a registered nurse and infection preventionist at Children’s Medical Center of Dayton.

Koss said last week 24 children and adults tested positive for the flu virus at Dayton Children’s, where doctors see patients mostly from Montgomery, Greene and Clark counties.

“The week before that we saw 29 cases, so we’re definitely seeing huge numbers of cases compared to last year,” Koss said. “We’re at least five-to-six weeks ahead of where we were last year in the numbers.”

In Montgomery County alone, the total number of confirmed flu cases reported to Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County nearly tripled last week to 20 from seven in the previous week.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick,” said Bill Wharton, a health department spokesman. “If people aren’t currently immunized, now is the time to do it because it takes a couple of weeks to build up your full immunity.”

DiOrio said it may be even more important to get vaccinated this year than in previous years because of the variety of flu strains already being detected across the state, including Influenza B, H1N1 and H3N2, which is genetically different from the influenza A H3N2 virus that result from close contact with swine.

“You could be exposed to multiple viruses this season, and that’s why we want people to get the vaccination so they can get the most protection,” she said.

The state Department of Health identified 102 cases of H3N2 during the summer, including 17 cases in Butler County mainly from people who attended the county fair and had direct contact with pigs. All those individuals were between 6 months and 61 years old and most recovered from a mild illness on their own.

The good news, DiOrio said, is the 2012 seasonal flu vaccine protects against three different viruses that scientists predict will be the most common during the upcoming season H3N2, H1N1 and influenza B virus.

The number of flu cases and hospitalizations has been relatively stable at some area hospitals, but health officials are still bracing for a surge in flu activity.

Miami Valley Hospital has had eight influenza-related hospitalizations since Nov. 1, spokeswoman Nancy Thickel said.

“That’s probably not unusual at this time; maybe one or two higher,’’ she said noting the hospital is still preparing for a “more severe” flu season.

Warren County Health Commissioner Duane Stansbury said they are “not seeing a big increase here, at least not yet.”

Jackie Phillips, health commissioner in Middletown, said health care workers are treating more patients with colds and sore throats, but, “right now, we’re not seeing a whole lot of flu activity in Middletown; we’re not seeing a whole lot of people going to the hospital.”

So far this year, flu activity has been “pretty typical” in Greene County, said Amy Schmitt, a registered nurse at the Greene County Combined Health District.

“Of course, that can change in a matter of days, but right now we’ve had only a handful of flu cases and only one or two hospitalizations in the last month,” she said.

Jenny Bailer, the nursing director at the Butler County Health Department, said flu activity has been average for this time of year, but the numbers are beginning to creep up.

“We’ve had five hospitalizations since the end of September, but we had two just last week,” Bailer said. “The fact that there were two last week goes along with other trends; the flu season is hitting earlier this year than usual.”

The CDC is set to release national data on influenza-associated hospitalizations on Friday.

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