RALEIGH — State public health officials confirmed another new flu-related death and Duke University Health Systems announced Monday that it was temporarily restricting the number of patients’ visitors because of the high volume of flu cases in the Triangle.
So far, the flu appears to be hitting hard and early, with younger adults more at risk than in a typical season.
The latest fatality bought the the official total to eight so far for the winter flu season. Even more deaths occurred last week and will soon be added to the toll, said Zack Moore, a medical epidemiologist with the N.C. Department of Public Health.
The flu season is off to an early start, but even so the number of fatalities is unusual.
“To have this many deaths with flu activity being as low as it is, that’s troubling because we haven’t hit the peak yet,” Moore said.
Information about additional deaths will be released Friday in the state’s normal weekly update of flu statistics, he said. He declined to say how many there had been.
Most victims so far are young adults who are particularly vulnerable to H1N1, the dominant strain of the virus so far this season. Four of the eight confirmed cases, including the most recent one, in Eastern North Carolina, were among adults aged 25 to 49, Moore said. Three were from 50 to 64 years old, and one was 65 or older.
In each of the eight cases, Moore said, the victim had some health issue that put the patient at high risk from flu. Such risk factors include heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illnesses such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, immune system problems, obesity and pregnancy.
What you can do
As always, public health officials are urging people to get vaccinated, because that’s by far the best way to avoid contracting flu and spreading it. The vaccine is effective against H1N1 and other flu strains. Moore said it was not too late to get vaccinated.
But he also said that the state was also putting particular emphasis this year on having a doctor treat flu if it does develop. The vaccine can’t help then, but doctors can prescribe antiviral drugs that can reduce the severity of the illness.
That’s particularly important if a patient is among those at high risk of severe complications from a case of flu, Moore said
“Getting that early treatment can be the difference between a fairly mild case and a pretty serious illness, or even the difference between life and death,” he said.
Hospital changes rules
As of Monday, Duke began limiting visitors to hospital and ambulatory surgery patients to immediate family or designated caregivers age 18 and older, except in unusual cases and with prior approval. Those visitors must also have no fever, cough or other flu-like symptoms. Only two adult visitors are allowed at a time.
Dr. Cameron Ward, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Duke, said it was a hard decision because holiday visits are so popular but added that Duke officials felt it was important, since patients are among the most vulnerable to flu.
Duke was seeing the same pattern of young adults falling ill, rather than the children and elderly patients who are typically the worst hit in years when other strains dominate the infections.
The types of victims this season, he said, are similar to those in 2009, another year in which the H1N1 variant struck.
“The thing about this is, most of those who are critically ill are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and if you’re in that range, you probably don’t normally think of yourself as high risk,” Wolfe said. “Vaccination rates can be poor, and you might be less likely to go to the doctor to be treated if you think you have flu.”
Officials at Rex and WakeMed hospitals in Raleigh and UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill said they were monitoring the situation but so far weren’t planning their own restrictions on visitors.