Flu season hits early

MARQUETTE – With four reported pediatric flu-related deaths in Michigan, area medical professionals are letting people know it’s not too late to get vaccinated.

“We see this every season, we see pediatric deaths, and that’s why we’re consistently advocating vaccination, because we need to protect the most vulnerable in our community from the flu,” said Marquette County Health Department Medical Director Terry Frankovich. “When individuals get vaccinated, they not only protect themselves, but they protect others in the community who are more vulnerable to complications, such as young infants, the elderly and people with other health conditions.”

A wave of flu cases has been making its way across the nation, beginning on the East Coast and traveling west.

The Upper Peninsula has been caught up in the wave as well, with flu season in the area beginning earlier than normal.

“We’re seeing lots of influenza right now, just like in the rest of the country,” Frankovich said. “We know for certain that the flu has hit earlier. Last year was a very mild season. Our peaks, historically, have been in February and this year is different locally, statewide and nationally by virtue of the fact that it’s arrived much earlier. What we can’t really say is whether this season will be more severe or not … it depends on how long it lasts.”

Frankovich said if the season peaks early, then this year likely won’t be worse than other years with early flu seasons. However, if the pace keeps up and the peak number of cases doesn’t hit until February, this could be one of the more severe flu years in recent history.

Dr. Richard Tomacari, a physician working inside Marquette General Hospital’s Emergency Room, said the ER has seen an increase in flu cases over last year.

“This has been a really busy flu season,” he said. “I think we’ve seen more flu cases in the last week or two. … We have been quite busy with the flu.”

The hospital has been working under visitor restrictions for several weeks, asking people with the flu or flu-like symptoms – as well as children under the age of 14 – to refrain from visiting hospital patients.

“People can have minor symptoms with the flu and patients who are admitted with flu are certainly contagious, so we try to limit the amount of potential spread by limiting visitation,” Tomacari said, adding that the restriction on children visiting people in the hospital is to help prevent the most susceptible from becoming ill. “Kids by nature are pretty active. They aren’t careful about hand-washing and covering their mouths and things like that.”

Visitors in some areas of the hospital have also been restricted to immediate family.

Dickinson County Memorial Hospital OB Unit and Family Birth Center also has visitor restrictions in place, and visitors are urged to restrain from visiting patients in other areas of the hospital.

Both Tomacari and Frankovich said this year is already much more active flu-wise, when compared to last year’s very mild flu season.

Across the nation, the flu has been affecting people of all ages, and the same has been happening locally as well.

“It’s across the board,” Tomacari said. “It can be more severe in either really young people or older people who have comorbidities like emphysema, heart disease or diabetes. Those people tend to be affected more seriously.”

According to Centers for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden, this year’s flu season is the earliest the country has experienced in nearly a decade, when the 2003-2004 flu season proved to be an early and severe one.

This year’s predominate strain, the H3N2 virus, is also the same strain that swept the nation back then.

Frankovich said this type of flu is often associated with a severe flu season.

“The CDC has been warning about the fact that this may be a more severe year, in part because it’s hit early, in part because the strain that’s circulating right now, that predominant H3N2 strain has been associated with more severe flu seasons in the past,” Frankovich said. “My take home message across all of this is vaccination. It’s the single best tool we have to prevent influenza, and it’s not too late to get vaccinated. Typically, the season extends well into the spring months.”

However, a slight shortage in the vaccine has left many doctors offices and pharmacies with no vaccine to administer.

To find out who can still administer the flu vaccine in the Marquette area, call the county health department at 475-7844.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.