WASHINGTON — The flu epidemic that is sweeping through Washington state appears to be gaining momentum, according to the Washington Department of Health. Local and state health experts are urging Pacific County residents to get the flu shot right away if they haven’t done so already, and to double down on other prevention measures.
Between roughly July 1 and Dec. 24 2016, nine people in Washington died as a result of “Influenza-like Illness” (ILI), the name for the various strains of flu and associated pneumonia that sicken people during flu season. By Dec. 31, the number of deaths had risen to 24 — a nearly threefold increase in just over a week, and the highest year-to-date death toll since at least 2010.
For the moment, doctors at Ocean Beach Hospital and Clinics aren’t seeing anything like the massive numbers of people who have fallen sick in the I-5 corridor over the last couple of weeks.
“They’re seeing some people with flu-like symptoms, but the providers didn’t think it was excessively more than any other year when the flu starts coming out,” Chief Nursing Officer Linda Kaino said on Jan. 6. However, she said locals should prepare for the real possibility of a local outbreak.
“[The Seattle area] just saw sort of a smash all at one time. I can’t imagine that we’re immune to it — I am just thinking we’re not quite there yet,” Kaino said.
The term “epidemic” brings to mind images of rampant, debilitating illness, and in some parts of the state, that seems to be true right now. In a Jan. 5 article, a Seattle Stranger reporter wrote, “Everyone, everywhere is sick. Check your out-of-office notices, read the headlines, look across the breakfast table: aching, coughing, miserable people everywhere.” But for researchers, it means that the number of cases is higher than normal. According to the federal Center for Disease Control, “Epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”
In Washington, DOH tracks the percentage of hospital visits and hospital discharges with a diagnosis of flu. For participating hospitals and labs, the “baseline,” or normal number of flu-related visits, is 1.1 percent of all visits. When the percentage surpasses 1.1 percent, it can mean an epidemic is in progress. As of Dec. 31, 2016, three percent of visits statewide were flu-related, and the rate was slightly higher in Western Washington. By comparison, during the relatively mild 2015-2016 flu season, flu-related hospital visits reached a maximum of 2.5 percent in February.
The current season seems to have more in common with the much more serious 2014-2015 season, when flu activity also reached epidemic status by mid-December. Just 16 people had died as of Dec. 31, 2014, but by June 30, 2015 — the end of the season — the state had confirmed a total of 157 flu-related deaths, by far the highest number of flu fatalities since at least 2010.
There is no way to know whether this year’s season will get worse, or simply fizzle out, but it doesn’t pay to take chances, Julie Graham, a spokeswoman for DOH, said on Jan. 9. Like Kaino, Graham stressed that it’s not too late to get a flu shot, although it should be a priority, because it takes two weeks to become effective. She added that the flu shot also protects the very young, the very old, and medically fragile people who have a higher risk of flu-related complications. Graham said this is important, because researchers have seen some indications that this year’s dominant strain — known as H3N2, is especially harmful to people who have preexisting health issues. This year’s flu shot protects against H3N2, Graham said, noting that while some people who get the shot will still get sick, their illnesses will generally be shorter and milder.
In a Jan. 6 interview, Pacific County Health and Human Services Director Mary Goelz also emphasized the importance of the flu shot, but said there are additional measures citizens should take.
“Good hand-washing technique is essential — every time you cough, sneeze, touch your face, touch other things that other people have touched. The better you’re doing with washing your hands, the less likely you’re passing that on,” Goelz said. “Cover your cough, but not with your hand.”
Flu-sufferers should stay home to prevent spreading infection, and go to doctor if they have concerns. Doctors should take cultures instead of just treating symptoms, Goelz said, especially for patients who have cancer, diabetes, COPD and other conditions that increase their risk of flu-related complications.
“If you start having symptoms, you want to be seen and be tested,” Goelz said. “Anyone who is immuno-compromised in any manner needs to be more aware of what their symptoms are.”
• Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
• Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
• Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
• Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
• Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
• Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs on them in most situations. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs and might not remove harmful chemicals.