RALEIGH — The number of confirmed flu cases has declined for six weeks straight and hospitals have reopened their doors to young visitors, both signs that the influenza season has grabbed its coat and hat and will be leaving the Triangle ahead of schedule.
Reductions in the number and severity of flu cases prompted area hospitals to relax rules that barred visitors under age 18 just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“Restrictions are being eased at Duke, WakeMed – all around the state, really,” said Mark Van Sciver, public health spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Department.
“The fact that so many hospitals are doing this is a good indication that we are not expecting another big spike in flu cases this season.”
North Carolina’s flu season started in October, and reached its peak in mid-December, nearly two months earlier than normal, Van Sciver said.
The state public health division reported 251 cases of “flu-like illness” during the week ending Feb. 9, the most recent week for which figures are available. Numbers have fallen steadily from a seasonal high of 1,284 for the week ending Dec. 15.
The state health lab recorded just 3 confirmed cases during the week ending Feb. 9, a big drop from the 58 confirmed in the week ending Dec. 8.
Public health officials note that reporting numbers are likely below the number of actual cases, because patients with flu and flu-like illnesses do not always see a doctor, and many who do aren’t tested for the specific virus.
There was one death from flu during the week ending Feb. 9.
A total of 42 deaths have been recorded in the state since last fall, 32 among patients age 65 or older. State epidemiologists say that is because older people have had less exposure, and thus less chance to develop resistance, to this year’s predominate flu strain, H3, which first appeared in the late 1960s.
No deaths of patients under age 18 have been reported this flu season.
Most area hospitals clamped down on young visitors in mid-December, when flu season got into full swing.
WakeMed experienced a peak in flu cases just before Christmas, said Dominique Godfrey-Johnson, epidemiologist for the health care system.
During the week ending Dec. 22, about 40 percent of 337 flu tests administered at the hospital had positive results, Godfrey-Johnson said.
“Last week, we ordered 107 tests and only had four positives,” she said. “That’s a big difference.”
Restrictions on visitors are imposed in an effort to protect both patients and the community at large, Godfrey-Johnson said.
The restrictions are largely focused on children because they are more likely to come into close contact with groups of other people, such as at school or daycare. And they are least likely to follow public health safety rules, such as frequent hand washing and covering coughs, Godfrey-Johnson said.
Hospitals will continue their regular policies of asking potential visitors to stay home if they are showing symptoms of illness, such as a fever, cough, frequent sneezing, runny nose or diarrhea.
Some risk of catching the flu remains until April at least, Van Sciver said.