We are entering the heart of flu season across the Tar Heel state, and this year’s virus is proving difficult to fight.
The most recent numbers from state health officials show a staggering increase in flu deaths. 30 new flu-related deaths were reported across North Carolina for the week ending January 3. That brings the total number of deaths related to influenza to 54, since early October. Last flu season saw 107 deaths in the state.
Earlier this week, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Heath gave an update on the severity of the flu this season. State Epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies says they began to see widespread flu occurrences in mid-November, with a sharp increase in mid-December.
“Flu activity has been more intense this year, compared with recent seasons,” she says, “as measured by visits to emergency departments and doctor’s offices for flu-like illness.”
Davies says the main strain, to this point, has been H3N2, which is a strain of the virus that tends to cause more severe illness in the elderly.
“About two-thirds of the H3N2 that is circulating,” she says, “has not been well matched to the vaccine, unfortunately.”
Officials are still encouraging North Carolinians to get the flu shot because different strains of the virus may become prominent later in the season.
Other treatments are available, including anti-viral drugs. But not all patients will require these medications, according to Dr. Davies.
“The people who most need these medications are people who are at high risk for influenza complications,” she says. That group includes the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with medical conditions including asthma and heart disease.
Dr. Thomas Moore says the flu season typically has a standard length, regardless of when that season starts.
“In general, once they start, widespread flu activity lasts on the order of three months,” he says.
Moore adds that if children begin showing symptoms of the flu, keeping them home from school can help stop the spread of the virus.
“Children with fever should not be going to school,” he says. “And they should be kept home until they’ve been without fever for at least 24 hours, without taking Tylenol or ibuprofen.”
As we expect the flu to remain intense over the next several weeks, there are every-day steps to help lower your chance of contracting the virus: staying away from those who are sick, increased hand washing with soap and warm water, and staying home from school or work if you are showing symptoms.