As influenza sweeps the nation, local health officials are bracing for the season’s peak to hit the Inland Northwest.
While most of the nation is seeing elevated flu activity, the western part of the country is only now starting to see notable outbreaks. Washington is among 16 states with moderate flu activity levels. Five states, including Idaho, have had low activity levels.
Six Washington residents and eight Idaho residents have died from the flu so far. Thirty-three people have been hospitalized in Spokane County alone, six of whom were from outside the county. At this time last year, only four people had been hospitalized in the county.
Spokane Regional Health District epidemiologist Mark Springer said the flu usually peaks in February in the Spokane area.
“If we’re seeing a lot of hospitalizations now, then we know it’s going to get worse,” he said.
Idaho does not track hospitalizations for flu, but some hospitals are reporting a high rate of emergency room visits for common flu symptoms, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said Friday.
Leslie Tengelsen, Idaho’s deputy state epidemiologist, said lab tests show that the vaccine is well-matched to the dominant flu strains circulating, so getting a flu shot is one of the best ways to prevent getting sick. Health officials also recommend frequent hand-washing and avoiding contact with people who are sick.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges everyone 6 months and older to get vaccinated, even though some will still become infected.
Springer said the vaccine is readily available in Washington. A map of locations that offer the flu vaccine can be found on the health department’s website, www.srhd.org.
At least 112 million Americans, or about 37 percent, have been vaccinated thus far, according to the CDC. Neither Washington nor Idaho tracks how many people get vaccinated, but Springer said the health district estimated fewer Washington residents were getting vaccinated than in past years.
“There was kind of that perception that we had some mild flu activity but it was nothing significant,” he said. “And that’s the battle we fight every year.”
Of the six deaths in Washington so far, one was a child, health district spokeswoman Kim Papich said.
Springer said the number of those affected may not necessarily be higher, but the disease appears to be affecting at-risk groups, including young children and the elderly, harder than usual.
“I think the data for us in Spokane is pretty suggestive that right now we’ve got a lot of severe illness in the elderly,” he said.
All of Idaho’s flu deaths this season have been people over the age of 50.
Flu typically is a factor in about a dozen deaths in Idaho each year. It was a primary or contributing cause in 18 deaths in 2003-’04, the last severe season.
“We are seeing definite flu signs, primarily in central and southern Idaho,” Tengelsen said.
The Panhandle has not been hit as hard yet, but it appears cases are mounting in the northern counties, Tengelsen said. As awareness of the severity of the season increases, she said, the vaccine may run low for a few days in certain areas.
“I think there may be a bit more of a challenge finding it if everybody runs out to get (the vaccine),” she said. “Certainly calling ahead is the key.”
The flu season in the U.S. got under way a month early, in December, driven by a strain that tends to make people sicker. The latest numbers show that the flu surpassed an “epidemic” threshold last week.
In the eastern U.S., the flu is so severe that hospitals are denying new patients and health emergencies have been declared.
Several hospitals have had to erect tents to accommodate the rash of patients with flulike symptoms.
Roy Almeida, epidemiologist for Providence Health and Services in Spokane, said local hospitals have procedures in place in the case of a widespread flu outbreak. If hospitals were overwhelmed with flu patients, he said, Providence could set up a remote location to accommodate them.