This year’s harsh flu season, with a significant increase in reported cases nationwide over previous years, has not spared the North Fork.
“It’s probably been the worst flu season that I can remember. I’ve been here almost 10 years now — certainly the worst one since I’ve been here,” Dr. Michael Catapano of STAT Health in Cutchogue said this week.
Last year was considered to be a mild flu season, but now, he said, it’s not unusual for him to see five to 10 flu patients every day.
During the week ending Jan. 20, there were 7,779 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu statewide — a 28 percent increase over the week before, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Suffolk County has seen a jump in positive flu lab reports every week since mid-November. In the week ending Jan. 20, the county recorded 395 positive flu lab reports for two strains of flu. Since Oct. 7, a total 1,308 positive flu lab reports were made in the county.
It’s important to keep in mind with these numbers that not everyone experiencing the flu visits a clinician and not every clinician tests for flu, said Grace Kelly-McGovern, public relations director for the county’s Department of Health Services.
Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport has seen a 60 percent increase in flu cases this month over the same time last year, said Patricia McArdle, a registered nurse and director of infection prevention and control at ELIH.
At Peconic Bay Medical Center, Dr. Alexandre Andrianov said a significant volume of flu patients has come through the emergency room or been admitted to the hospital so far this season. He said it’s been at least as high a volume as in any of the past three or four years.
So what make this flu season so bad?
“I think it’s just the nature of the influenza bug,” Dr. Catapano said. “They change every year and they have different virulence and different ability to be passed on and this one happens to be one that’s hitting us just right and the vaccine isn’t working as well as we’d like.”
Three flu strains are circulating in the 2017-18 season. This year, they include type H3N2, which is “notoriously more severe” than other types, Dr. Andrianov said.
While this year’s flu vaccine is not as effective as it those created in past years, doctors emphasize that it’s still important to get the flu shot to prevent less severe strains of the virus and mitigate the severity of the illness.
Nationally, the highest rates of hospitalization for flu are occurring in the over-65 population, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that these individuals get higher-dose flu shots for this season. Seven flu-related pediatric deaths nationwide were reported to the CDC in the third week of January, out of a total 37 pediatric deaths reported so far this season.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer called on the federal government to send a special CDC flu surveillance team to New York to bolster “inundated hospitals and budget-strained localities across the state.”
The team would help collect and analyze data on how to best target the flu and coordinate with state officials on necessary resources, Mr. Schumer wrote in a letter to CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald.
Common flu symptoms include fever, chills, coughing, sore throat, runny nose and body aches — especially headaches and muscle aches, Ms. McArdle said.
Dr. James Tomarken, commissioner of health services for Suffolk County, issued a press release Jan. 19 reminding clinicians and the public that influenza is “prevalent” here. He offered three steps to reduce the flu’s spread and effects of flu: obtain a flu shot, prevent the spread of germs, and use antiviral medication as prescribed by a clinician.
“Hand hygiene cannot be stressed enough,” Ms. McArdle said.
“Wash your hands after touching surfaces or use an alcohol-based disinfectant, like Purell,” she said. “And put disinfectant on highly touched areas, such as door knobs, phone receivers, remote controls and your keyboard if it’s used by other people.”
Beyond standard hygiene, Dr. Catapano noted, it’s important that people who have a family member with the flu know they also have the option of taking a preventive dose of Tamiflu — even if they’ve had the vaccine.
“It’s two weeks of fever and aches and feeling horrible. It’s not a cold,” Dr. Catapano said.