Federal health officials said Friday that influenza is widespread across the continental United States and causing a sharp rise in hospitalizations and visits to doctors’ offices in just the past week — with the H3N2 subtype of the virus appearing to be the most predominant strain, according to Dr. Daniel Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now,” Jernigan said during a conference call with reporters. “There’s lots of flu in lots of places.”
In Florida, health officials have reported a rise in flu activity, including two child deaths, over the past several weeks, with the northern regions of the state seeing higher incidence of illness.
South Florida hospitals also have seen a rise in emergency department visit from patients complaining of flu symptoms. Dr. Tracey Patricoff, medical director for the ER at South Miami Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida, said she has seen a spike in influenza-related visits, “especially in the last two weeks”.
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Patricoff said most of the flu cases she has seen involve respiratory symptoms and not gastrointestinal disorders, such as vomiting and diarrhea. Doctors generally treat patients’ symptoms with antiviral drugs and hydration, she said.
Jernigan of the CDC said the 2017-18 flu season started early and probably is peaking, though he cautioned that “we have a lot more flu to go.” Other strains of the influenza virus, such as type B, may arise, he said.
CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald said the influenza type A, H3N2 strain has been the most common form of flu this season.
“These viruses are often linked to more severe illness, especially among children and people age 65 and over,” Fitzgerald said. “When H3 [strains] are predominant, we tend to have a worse flu season with more hospitalizations and more deaths.”
Jernigan said this flu season looks a lot like the seasons in 2012-13 and 2014-15, both of which saw the H3N2 strain of the virus as the predominant type of infection.
That’s leading to a sharp rise in hospitalizations of people with laboratory confirmed flu, Jernigan said, citing numbers reported by hospitals.
“There are 22.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 people,” he said, “up from 13.7 last week. So we saw an almost doubling in numbers just in the last week.”
As bad as this flu season may be, however, Jernigan said it was still too early to tell how severe the impact will be.
CDC officials said 20 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported this season, including two children in Florida. One of the children in Florida who died was not vaccinated and had underlying health conditions, according to Florida’s weekly flu report.
State health officials also reported that visits to emergency rooms among adults age 65 and older continue to increase and remain well above peak levels seen during the previous two flu seasons.
Florida has reported 73 outbreaks of influenza and flu-like illness this season — more outbreaks than in previous seasons at this time, which may indicate a more severe season.
Health officials recommend the flu vaccine as the most effective way to prevent the illness and reduce complications. Officials also recommend that sick people stay home until they are fever free (without medication) for at least 24 hours, cover their mouths when they cough and wash their hands often.