The flu season in North Carolina had already alarmed public health experts by rocketing to a quick and vigorous start. Now it has claimed two unusually early deaths.
The victims both lived in the Triad. State health officials announced their deaths Thursday.
One was at an elevated risk because of advanced age and pre-existing medical conditions, but the other was not, State Health Director Laura Gerald said. Neither had received the flu vaccine.
The earliest flu-related deaths last year and the year before came in January and February, according to state public health records.
In recent years, flu season typically has begun around late December and peaked in mid- to late winter.
The number of positive flu tests recorded by the State Laboratory of Public Health, though, has jumped more than tenfold since early November, according to statistics released Thursday.
Also up is the percentage of outpatient visits to health care providers in a statewide surveillance network that are attributed to flulike illnesses. That number is higher than at this point every previous year since 2008.
The nature of flu seasons is often mysterious even to experts, and its impossible to say whether the quick start signals a long, harsh season or simply an early peak.
Im really concerned, though, because there is so much activity, and from so many sources spread all over the state, said Nicole Lee, an epidemiologist in public health at the state Department of Health and Human Services. With such an active start to the season, we dont know if its the beginning of something that will peak early, or whether it will continue and peak in, say, January or February.
Normally this time of year, the state lab would be getting just its first or second positive test for flu from a patient somewhere in the state, she said. This year, the state already has 77.
Of the two strains identified, the one that typically is more dangerous, an H3 strain, accounts for all but four cases. It can hit the elderly particularly hard, Lee said.
Not too late
Its not too late to get a flu vaccine, and health officials urge those who havent to do so. The vaccine takes about two weeks to become fully effective, but flu often continues to spread well into spring.
The vaccine is considered the safest and most effective way to prevent contracting and spreading flu. Its recommended for anyone older than 6 months, and is particularly important for people at high risk of complications, including pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, very young children and the elderly.
The early jump in cases across the state has been mirrored in the Triangle, said Sue Lynn Ledford, Wake Countys community health director.
Last winter, flu season was the mildest on record since the state surveillance network got its start in 2002. That could be a problem if it lulls people into thinking that they dont need vaccinations, Ledford said.
Im afraid people have taken a casual attitude about it because last year was so mild, she said.