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Ample flu cases reason for concern among health officials

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 2, 2018, 10:28 p.m.

In this file photo, a nurse practitioner prepares a flu vaccination. Though flu cases are up in Washington, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested three strains from flu patients in Washington and found all were strains included in the 2017-18 flu vaccine. (Evan Vucci / AP)
In this file photo, a nurse practitioner prepares a flu vaccination. Though flu cases are up in Washington, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested three strains from flu patients in Washington and found all were strains included in the 2017-18 flu vaccine. (Evan Vucci / AP)

This year’s flu season is shaping up to be one of the deadliest in recent memory, causing concern among health officials in Washington and Idaho.

Six Spokane County residents have died of the flu this season, and hospitalizations for influenza remain higher than at the same time last year, the Spokane Regional Health District said in a report released Tuesday.

Idaho has had 13 flu deaths so far this season, making it the deadliest for this time of year since 2010, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said in a blog post.

Health workers use the number of hospital patients testing positive for influenza as an indicator of how widespread flu is.

When more than 10 percent of hospital patients tested for respiratory illness have influenza, it’s an indicator flu is widespread, said Jennifer Semenza, a spokeswoman for Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Sacred Heart and Holy Family Hospital have been over the 10 percent threshold for the past three weeks. That’s prompted the health district to issue a recommendation that facilities require health providers to either have a flu vaccine or wear a mask to prevent spreading the illness to patients.

Providence policy currently requires unvaccinated providers wear a mask, Semenza said.

A total of 157 people have been hospitalized in Spokane County with the flu this season. Most tested positive for influenza type A, strains of flu that can be transmitted by animals and tend to be more common earlier in the flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested three strains from flu patients in Washington and found all were strains included in the 2017-18 flu vaccine, the Washington Department of Health said in its flu report for the week ending Dec. 23.

Statewide, 20 Washingtonians have died from laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu. Everyone who has died so far this season was 50 or older, and three-quarters of them were 65 or older.