Flu outbreak reaches Monroe County

Pictured, Monroe County Health Department employee Kim Vonderhaar demonstrates the procedure for administering flu shots on health department employee Victoria Kehrer. (Sean McGowan photo)

Flu season is in full force, and if national reports are any indication, the severity and outbreak of the illness is much worse than in previous years.

The nastiest aspect of the flu has been the 30 pediatric deaths reported by the Centers for Disease Control. On top of that, the illness is widespread in every state except Hawaii, with a current hospitalization rate of 31.5 of every 100,000 U.S. residents.

The CDC sent out a health advisory at the end of December about increased Influenza A H3N2 activity. In Illinois, the Belleville News-Democrat reports that at least four people have died from the flu this season, including one pediatric death.

The CDC explains that the flu can make the body susceptible to pneumonia or other more severe illnesses. In one case, a healthy 21-year-old man  in Pennsylvania died when he decided to ride out his symptoms and not check in with a physician.

Monroe County Health Department Director John Wagner advised that those who think they may have the flu should check themselves in at an urgent care facility or primary physician within 48 hours of developing symptoms.

“It’s best to be safe and see a physician, especially with treatments available to lessen the severity because you never know when it’s going to jump from your run-of-the-mill flu to something more serious,” he said. 

An Illinois Department of Public Health analysis shows the flu became widespread in the state during the week ending Dec. 16. 

For the week ending Jan. 13, showing the most recent data available, IDPH reports 5.73 percent of outpatient visits were for influenza-like symptoms.

Many sources indicate this year’s flu vaccine has only been 30 percent effective in fighting off the Influenza A H3N2 strand. Additionally, the strand tends to be more severe and prolongs symptoms.

Wagner recommended still getting the vaccine to lessen the severity of the illness. For more information on getting a flu shot at the Monroe County Health Department — which accepts walk-ins from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday — call 939-3871.

“What it is doing is it can lessen the severity of symptoms because it’s still fighting something, even if it’s not preventing you from having the flu. When you get the vaccine, your body is being conditioned to fight,” he said.

With the exception of this month, Wagner said the number of people coming into the office for a flu shot has remained steady.

“We’ve seen a little bit of an uptick of shots in the past couple weeks since the media came out with their reports,” he explained.

Overall, Wagner noted the number of people checking in to doctors’ offices within the county has increased from last year.

“Just within the past week, we’ve seen a big uptick … It’s interesting because we look at school absenteeism and different things, and it only started about a week ago in Columbia,” he said. “And then it started moving around and made it’s way south.

“So you could actually see the progression of it, though it might just be a coincidence. The week before it reached Columbia, too, there were a high number of flu cases reported in St. Louis. It’s like you could see it coming.”

Wagner added that people coming in and out of town for the holidays may be attributable to the recent increase in flu-related doctor visits.

Doctor visits in the county
At Gateway Urgent Care in the 11 South medical complex in Columbia, about 40 patients a day are coming in with flu-like symptoms, Beth Ann Gailey of Gateway Regional Medical Center estimated.

“It’s definitely an increase from last year. And we’re seeing way more cases in Columbia/Waterloo than our Glen Carbon location,” she said. 

Gailey is unaware of the exact difference, but said it may be about twice as many. Those coming in for treatment of the flu, Gailey explained, are exhibiting such symptoms as a fever and stuffy nose.

The standard treatment at the urgent care has been Tamiflu, an antiviral drug, if it is within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms. Supportive care includes fever control and fluid hydration beyond that time frame.

Additionally, Gailey recognized late December and early January as the peak time for Gateway to see patients with flu-like symptoms. She said there has been no pattern in terms of the age of those coming in this year.

Senior living and schools
While overall numbers have increased in the county, Waterloo school superintendent Brian Charron has not seen a higher-than-normal absence rate for the flu so far. Columbia schools have fared slightly worse, though the numbers are no different than last year.

“The nurses report about the same number of students out sick as the year prior, but the students are out of school a longer period of time,” Columbia school superintendent Dr. Gina Segobiano said. “It appears that the flu is coupled with strep throat on some occasions. 

“We also have faced several staff members who suffered from the flu that were out a longer period of time.”

Oak Hill Director Kim Keckritz said residents have been mostly unaffected this season, with only 14 cases out of 190 residents. She added that some of these cases started before they were admitted to Oak Hill. 

“We actually have done a pretty good job of controlling it,” she said. “Our medical director was impressed with how well we did.”

Containment includes isolating those with flu-like symptoms to their rooms and putting extra work into sanitizing the facilities.

Preventative measures
Outside of the vaccine, the CDC also lists multiple other steps to avoid contracting the virus:
• Avoid close contact with sick people.
• While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
• If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.
• Cover your nose or mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.

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