Miami-Dade County

Flu-related ER visits way up in Miami-Dade

A nurse prepares a flu vaccination shot at a health fair in Miami-Dade County in 2009.
A nurse prepares a flu vaccination shot at a health fair in Miami-Dade County in 2009. Miami Herald

This year’s flu season has reached “severe” levels around the country and Florida is one of 29 states with the highest level of flu activity, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Miami-Dade County, influenza was responsible for 5.9 percent of emergency room visits between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3, according to a report from the county Department of Health. Last year, 3.6 percent of ER visits during the same time period were attributable to the flu.

“We’re seeing lots and lots of cases, and the season definitely started earlier than it did last year,” said David Farcy, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

Farcy estimated that the emergency room at Mount Sinai is treating 12 to 15 cases of flu each day compared to four or five cases a day last year.

“And a lot of the people we’re seeing say that they did receive a vaccine,” he said.

The severe flu season is largely due to the unexpected spread of a dangerous strain of the virus known as H3N2, which this year’s flu vaccine offers limited protection against.

In order to have supplies of the vaccine ready for flu season, health officials must predict months in advance which strain of the virus is most likely to spread. This year, said Ted Ross, an influenza researcher at the nonprofit Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute of Florida, the virus “drifted” after that prediction was made.

“Occasionally what happens is that the vaccine is not well matched to the strains that are actually circulating,” Ross said. “And that’s what’s happening this year.”

H3N2 has accounted for more than 95 percent of influenza diagnoses this year, according to the CDC.

But Ross still urged people to get a flu shot.

“The vaccine will still provide partial protection and can reduce symptoms if you do get infected,” he said.

Floridians, especially those who face a high risk from the virus, lag behind residents of other states in receiving flu vaccinations, which are free under the Affordable Care Act.

The H3N2 strain is dangerous in part because it tends to hit children and the elderly harder than other types of flu, said Michael Jhung, a medical officer with the CDC.

“We’re really encouraging antiviral medications for people who get the flu, especially those at high risk like very young children, the elderly and people with underlying chronic conditions,” Jhung said.

Three children in Florida have died because of the flu so far this season, according to the state Department of Health. None lived in South Florida.

The country also experienced an H3N2 outbreak two years ago when 171 children died around the nation, including eight in Florida.

Miami Children’s Hospital, which mainly treats patients younger than 15, is seeing between 15 and 30 new cases of flu a day, said Dr. Jefry Biehler, chairman of pediatrics.

“That’s a significant increase from last year,” Biehler said.

Around the state, healthcare workers are reporting more cases of the disease compared with the same time during previous years, according to a weekly report from the Florida Department of Health.

Nearly 2,500 Floridians have died from influenza and pneumonia so far this flu season, a number comparable to previous years, said Nathan Dunn, a spokesman for the state health department. The two diseases are counted together because many people with the flu ultimately succumb to a respiratory infection like pneumonia.

“The department continues to monitor the spread of influenza across Florida and will respond promptly to any perceived public health threat,” he said.

Miami-Dade has experienced several localized outbreaks of flu, including one at an elementary school in November in which 13 children fell ill. At least six of the children had not received a vaccine.

Ninety percent of children who died from the flu last year had not been vaccinated, according to the CDC.

All of the 43 outbreaks that have happened so far in Florida this season have taken place in schools, daycare facilities or nursing homes, according to state data.

Ross, the influenza researcher, said the flu season would only continue to get worse as people return from the winter holiday, having been exposed to the virus on their travels.

And a new semester at school won’t help either.

“Children unfortunately are the spreaders of influenza and they’re all going to return to school this week and start mixing with each other and then bring it home to mom and dad,” Ross said.

Follow @MHhealth for health news from South Florida and around the nation.

This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Flu prevention tips

Healthcare experts strongly recommend that all people — especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions like asthma, cancer and diabetes — get a flu vaccination.

They also recommend covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, washing your hands regularly, and staying home from work if you feel sick. People who think they are coming down with the flu should visit a doctor as soon as they begin to feel symptoms.

Prescription medications like Tamiflu are most effective within 48 hours of symptoms developing.