The flu has claimed 27 more lives in North Carolina in the past week, bringing the statewide death total to 200 since Oct. 1.
One death was reported in Wake County and none in Johnston County and Orange County for the week ending Feb. 17. Durham county officials did not provide information.
But a drop in statewide flu hospitalizations and flu diagnoses is prompting state public health officials to declare that the flu epidemic may have peaked and is now in decline. Officials cautioned the public to continue taking precautions while the virus is in circulation.
“It does appear that flu activity peaked in early February,” said State Epidemiologist Zack Moore. “While we are encouraged that flu activity has started to decrease, it remains widespread. We continue to encourage people to get vaccinated, stay home if they are feeling sick and practice good hand hygiene.”
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The Wake County Division of Public Health is also seeing a slowdown in the flu’s spread.
“Our epidemiologist concurs that the flu peaked last week and we are seeing a downward trend,” said Wake County spokeswoman Elizabeth Harmantzis. “However, having said that, there is still a lot of flu around so we can’t let our guard down yet.”
Restrictions remain in place at local hospitals, including WakeMed and UNC Rex Healthcare which have banned visits to patients by children 12 and under. UNC Hospitals has banned children 11 and younger and Duke Regional will not allow anyone under 18 to visit patients.
According to data issued Thursday mapping the epidemic through Feb. 17, flu cases have fallen below 8 percent of all hospital visits, down from 10.5 percent earlier this month.
Medical experts are seeing a traditional switch in the type of flu strain that is circulating, which tends to happen closer to the end of flu season, said Dr. Katie Passaretti, medical director of infectious disease at Atrium Health in Charlotte.
“Influenza isn’t you turn on a switch and you turn off a switch,” she said.
Flu cases peak when there is lots of transmission out in community. The point when there are very few cases depends on several factors including weather, how people are congregating and timing, she said.
A total 218 N.C. residents died from the flu last season, which stretched from October 2016 to May 2017. Most deaths occurred in February, March and April.
Nationwide, last season’s flu activity peaked in mid-March, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That was one of the later peaks on record. The flu season most commonly peaks between December and February, according to the CDC.
Anyone over 6 months of age should still get a flu shot, because there could be several weeks left in the season. The only exclusions are for people who have documented severe reactions to prior vaccinations.
People should continue to take precautions to prevent spreading germs, including washing their hands and covering coughs and sneezes.
“We just encourage everyone to continue to be vigilant,” Passaretti said. That includes throwing away used tissues and staying home from work or school when sick. “Be smart and protect yourself.”