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North Carolina flu deaths, illnesses rise


PItt County Public Health Director Dr. John Morrow


By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Pitt County health officials urged people to get a flu vaccine after 10 new flu deaths were reported in North Carolina — none in Pitt County — during the week of Jan. 7-13, raising the statewide total to 42 Since the flu season began on Oct. 1.

“Things have gotten worse here, with significant increases in the diagnosis of flu across the county and across the state,” said Dr. John Morrow, Pitt County Health director. 

Information on flu-associated deaths and illnesses is based on reports submitted by providers to the state’s public health division. An influenza-associated death is defined for surveillance purposes as a death (adult or pediatric) resulting from a clinically compatible illness that was confirmed to be influenza by an appropriate laboratory or rapid diagnostic test with no period of complete recovery between the illness and death.

The disease — which has gripped every state except Hawaii — was not expected to peak until February, according to State Health Department officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think it’s yet to be determined whether we’ve seen the peak or not,” Morrow said. “The results of testing at the state lab dipped just a little this past week, compared to this week last year. We’re a little over 5 percent (population with flu-like illness), and I suspect we’re going to see that increase a little this week.”

That does not necessarily indicate this season will be more severe or produce more deaths, but could indicate a shift in the season, Morrow said. That could be related to the cold temperatures the state has recently seen (cold viruses survive better in cold temperatures, he said), or to more people traveling this season.

“You don’t get flu from cold weather, you get it from the germ. But you need people to spread it,” Morrow said. “We won’t really know all we need to about how it has spread until after the season is over.”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reports that Type A, H3N2 is the predominant strain showing up in the state and nationwide, Morrow said. It is a more virulent strain than the Type B strain, and generally causes more deaths and hospitalizations, he said.

The flu outbreak that has been sweeping the United States since mid-November has been killing 100 people per week, CDC officials have said on the center’s website. 

Nationwide, there have been 759 flu deaths between Oct. 7 and Dec. 23, a rate that is about double last year’s figure of 322, officials at the CDC website said. With 14,000 new cases last week, the total number of those with the flu rose to more than 74,000, and pediatric deaths are on the rise.

Those most at risk for for influenza and related complications include children younger than five, but especially those younger than two; adults 65 or older, pregnant women and those up to two weeks beyond delivery; people with medical conditions like COPD and heart disease, kidney and liver disorders and diabetes; people with HIV/AIDS; and people who are morbidly obese, state health officials report.

Vidant Health System announced that, beginning today, it is restricting visitation at its eastern North Carolina hospitals to healthy people 12 years of age or older until flu activity decreases in its service area.  The exception to that will be well children younger than 12 who are visiting a newborn sibling, they said.

Vaccination still is the best defense against flu, Morrow said. 

“This year’s predictions indicate that the vaccine will provide protection for 30-35 percent of the population,” he said. “That’s not great, but it’s still a good idea to get vaccinated. The concern is that the virus changes (through mutation), but you still get some amount of crossover protection even if it’s not a good match.”

Vaccination also can mitigate the effects of flu even if a person contracts the disease, and the more people who receive the vaccine, the greater the “herd protection” factor, Morrow said. 

Other ways to fight the flu, according to health experts: Wash your hands frequently; cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze; stay home if you are sick; and keep your kids home from school if they are sick. 

If you do become sick with the flu, there are antiviral medications you can speak with your doctor about. Those still are considered a second line of defense. A vaccination is the first and best way to prevent influenza, Morrow said.