The flu season that came weeks early in North Carolina and quickly built to the worst level in a decade may now be starting to peak.
But even if it is, the number of new cases is likely to stay unusually high for weeks to come, state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies said Thursday, just before the states weekly update of its flu statistics.
Its always dangerous to try and give predictions about flu season, but we seem to be at about the peak, if it follows the traditional patterns, she said. That peak should last about two to four weeks, and then gradually things should start to taper off, which would take four to six weeks.
So far, 14 people across the state have been killed.
The signs that the season may be leveling off come from the number of new cases reported in a statewide surveillance network of emergency rooms and doctors offices, she said.
The volume of extra work for doctors this represents can be huge. Across the WakeMed healthcare system, for example, about 30 percent of all visitors to emergency rooms are there for flu-like illnesses (ILI), said Dominique Godfrey-Johnson, a WakeMed public health epidemiologist. ILI is a term for illnesses involving fever, cough and perhaps sore throat, and may include patients with respiratory problems similar to flu.
WakeMed alone has tested more than 400 patients who were positive for flu since the official start of the season in early October, said Godfrey-Johnson.
With so many patients carrying flu, the WakeMed hospital system announced Thursday that it would restrict the number and age of visitors beginning Monday. Duke University Health System enacted a similar policy earlier this week, and a host of other hospital systems across the state have done the same.
These are normal precautions for flu season, Davies said.
Even if the number of new cases has finally started to flatten, so much of the flu season remains that it still is smart for anyone over the age of six months to get vaccinated if they havent, she said. It takes about two weeks after getting the vaccine for immunity to build to full strength, but flu could still be a serious problem into March.
Vaccination and the flu?
A common complaint this year has come from people who got the vaccination but still got flu.
There are several reasons, but the main one is simply that the vaccine isnt fully effective on everyone, Davies said. If, say, 20 percent of those vaccinated arent fully protected, thats still a large number of people left vulnerable.
Its a numbers game and this year, with so much flu activity around, those who dont get a strong immunity have a better chance of getting flu than they would in a light year, she said.
At least five of the people across the state who have died from flu-related complications had received the vaccination, Davies said. All of those were over age 88, and its well-known that the vaccination is much less effective in the very old.
And unfortunately, the strain that is most common this year is particularly dangerous for the elderly, Davies said.
Also, many of those who got sick after getting the shot actually contracted some other respiratory problem with symptoms similar to those of flu, she said.