The flu epidemic took a dramatic turn for the worse in North Carolina recently as 34 more people died from the viral infection.
The deaths tallied for the week ending Feb. 3 brought North Carolina’s total to 140 since the flu season began Oct. 1. The total represents the most flu deaths reported in a single week so far this year.
This flu season is now more than halfway past the 218 total flu deaths reported last year in North Carolina. This season’s total has far outstripped the 59 flu-related deaths in the 2015-16 flu season.
“We’re in the middle of a nationwide flu epidemic and I’m asking North Carolinians to do their part to stay healthy and stop the flu from spreading,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “There are a few simple actions we can all take to fight the flu: get your flu shot if you haven’t already, wash your hands and cover sneezes and coughs, and stay home from work or school if you get the flu.”
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This year’s flu vaccine is protecting only about 1 in 3 people who received the shot. In a typical year, when public health experts more accurately predict which flu strains will be active, the flu vaccine protects at least half the people who receive the shot.
Three of the deaths were reported in Johnston County. None were reported in Wake County or Durham County. Orange County officials said two people died in their county at UNC Hospitals but they were residents of other counties.
Medical experts still urge the public to get vaccinated, if they haven’t already, but late-comers will have to look for a pharmacy that still has vaccine left. Even though vaccinations are never 100 percent effective, they reduce the risk of the flu spreading, public health officials say.
Of the 140 flu deaths as of Feb. 3, 60 were known to have been vaccinated; 80 were unvaccinated or had no documentation of flu vaccine.
Some people can carry the infection without showing symptoms, and infected people are contagious before they show symptoms of illness, so they don’t know they are transmitting the virus.
As flu cases multiply, hospital visits for flu-like symptoms have surged to 9 percent of all hospital visits statewide, already exceeding the highest point recorded last year at the end of February.
Even those who have already caught the flu and fully recovered should get vaccinated if they didn’t get their shot, medical experts say. That’s because getting sick develops immunity to the strain that infected you, but not to other strains in circulation, said Dave Weber, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the UNC-Chapel Hill.
Multiple flu infections in the same person are rare but not unheard of.
“It would be bad luck but it has happened – based on strains,” said Michael Anthony “Tony” Moody, chief medical officer of Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute. “The strains tend not to circulate at the same time. You can catch them back to back to back like that.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, those who are most vulnerable to flu complications are the very old and the very young. Most of the victims in North Carolina have been the elderly.
Of the 140 deaths recorded so far, 97 were 65 or older, 33 between the ages 50 and 64, six aged 25 to 49, three aged 5 to 17 and one victim younger than five.
The deaths are often associated with complications caused by the virus. Flu complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, bacterial infections and immune system over-reactions. With pneumonia, fluids accumulate in the lungs and stifle a patient’s ability to breathe.
People who have other conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, are also susceptible to complications that result when the body is fighting against influenza.
The CDC urges flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older with rare exceptions. The agency recommends injections over nasal sprays, which the CDC has not recommended for the past two years because of lower effectiveness.