Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: With 3,000 Florida flu deaths this season, maybe it’s time to panic

In some other context, 259 deaths would go down as a catastrophe.

That’s at least 259 Floridians during the first week of 2015 alone, dead from flu.

It’s a safe bet that, by now, the January death count from flu or flu-related pneumonia in Florida has exceeded 1,000.

So far in this particularly brutal fall-to-spring flu season, the Florida Department of Health’s computers have identified well over 3,000 death certificates that attributed mortality to “pneumonia and influenza.”

It has been a killer season with no indication yet that the flu death rate has begun to decline. But the catastrophe goes beyond the body count. The University of Florida College of Public Health has calculated that in an average year, one with only 2,300 flu deaths in the state, influenza viruses will sicken 1.9 million Floridians, sending 7,300 to the hospital. The Herald’s Nicholas Nehamas reported that influenza accounted for 5.9 percent of emergency room visits at Miami-Dade County hospitals between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3.

That amounts to a catastrophe of the economic kind, $135 million in medical bills and $540 million in lost wages and other indirect costs. That’s for an average flu season. We’re already well beyond average.

One might think that an epidemic killing 2,000 to 3,000 Floridians and sending 8,000, maybe 10,000 to the hospital, while sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state’s economy, ought to be causing an uproar. I’m not calling for a screaming panic, but . . . something.

Consider the mass hysteria attached to Ebola last year — politicians going berserk, closing schools, imposing quarantines, calling for travel restrictions, stirring up a national panic. For a disease that afflicted 10 people in the U.S. (all but two contracted Ebola back in Africa) and caused two deaths. Meanwhile, nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes an average of 36,000 deaths a year to influenza.

Instead of mass panic, we’ve got mass oblivion, particularly in Florida. Two years ago, CDC reported that Florida was dead last in the nation in flu vaccination rates. Sixty-six percent of the state’s population didn’t bother (last year, Nevada nosed us out for that ignominious last place ranking).

Cuc Tran, 30, a doctoral student at UF’s College of Public Health, fears that the CDC’s vaccination rate estimates — dismal as they are — might be optimistic. Tran, however, knows how to fix the problem.

Working with local school and health officials, she engineered a model program in Alachua County that managed to vaccinate more than half of the county’s school-aged kids, the segment of the population Tran called “super spreaders.” Children, she explained, are like little living flu vectors, coughing, sneezing, touching one another, turning their schools into a viral petri dish. They then carry the disease home to parents, siblings, grandparents.

Flu vaccinations are much more effective for children and the nasal spray applications used for kids have the added benefit of blunting their contagiousness. Math models had indicated that if public health workers could limit a flu outbreak among the children, the greater community might benefit.

The Alachua program started up in 2006. Money was scrounged up from grants and community organizations. Then the trick was convincing the parents to sign consent forms. Tran found that the low vaccination rates in Alachua County, and probably the rest of Florida, weren’t due to some anti-vaccination philosophy (nothing like the anti-vaccine movement blamed for the measles outbreak in California). “Parents just didn’t have the time or resources to get their kids to the health department,” she said. Some couldn’t understand the consent form.

Tran discovered that public health had as much to do with public relations as medicine. It also helped that a local ice cream vendor agreed to scoop out rewards for signed consent forms.

She published her findings last month, based on the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 flu seasons. The models were right. The effect was profound. Vaccinating just half of the county’s 5- to 17-year-old children — about 14,000 students — reduced flu among the county’s entire school population by 79 percent. Flu among kids aged 4 and under, a segment that was not vaccinated through the program, went down by 89 percent. Flu among all non-students in Alachua County fell by 60 percent.

This is heroic stuff that, on a statewide scale, could save hundreds of lives, save millions of dollars. “But the problem is cost,” she said. “Who’s going to pay for it?”

Apparently, not even 3,000 Florida deaths in a brutal flu season has inspired an answer to that question. Maybe we need an Ebola-style panic.