Editorial: All benefit from precautions against flu

  • In this Jan. 12 photo, Ana Martinez, a medical assistant at the Sea Mar Community Health Center, gives a patient a flu shot in Seattle. Flu season continues to get worse, as this has become the most intense the country has seen since a pandemic strain hit nine years ago, U.S. health officials said on Jan. 26. AP FILE PHOTO

Friday, February 02, 2018

It benefits all of us to heed the precautions of health experts and try to curb the spread of flu during a particularly severe season, here and nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu was widespread during January in every state except Hawaii, the rates of hospitalizations and deaths are increasing, and the percentage of patients visiting doctors for treatment of flu symptoms rose to the highest level since the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

By the end of the season, which could last several more weeks, some 34 million Americans are expected to be sickened by the flu, according to the CDC. That is about the same as during the 2014-15 flu season, when the CDC estimates 710,000 Americans were hospitalized and about 56,000 died.

There were a total of 506 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu in western Massachusetts during the entire 2016-17 season, and that number has more than tripled to 1,522 so far during the 2017-18 season, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Hospitals, including Cooley Dickinson in Northampton, are restricting visitors in an attempt to limit the spread of flu. Beginning Jan. 25, children under the age of 14 were prohibited from visiting hospitalized patients, and only siblings are permitted in the Childbirth Center.

Also, Cooley Dickinson asked that the number of visitors “be limited to only those necessary for the patient’s comfort” and that people clean their hands before entering or leaving a patient’s room.

The hospital also advised patients to attend appointments alone or accompanied just by an immediate caregiver, and they should not bring children.

“We are taking these temporary precautions to limit the number of visitors,” said registered nurse Linda Riley, the infection prevention manager for Cooley Dickinson. “This year is about the severity of the flu, the fact that it is particularly dangerous for the young children and seniors, and the widespread activity of flu across our region.”

Baystate Health has announced similar restrictions at its four hospitals, including Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

Cooley Dickinson reported this week that several patients who tested positive for the flu have died. However, “Because deaths related to influenza are almost always due to other complications, we are unable to confirm the cause of death as flu,” hospital spokeswoman Christina Trinchero said.

The CDC reported that the number of deaths resulting from influenza and pneumonia, as listed on death certificates, was elevated nationally for most of January. A total of 37 children across the country had died of the flu as of Jan. 26, according to the CDC.

Trinchero said this week that Cooley Dickinson had not admitted any pediatric patients with the flu so far this season.

John Snyder, a pediatrician at Amherst Pediatrics, said about 10 patients with flu symptoms are seen there every day. “So far, we’ve had some very sick children with the flu. I have not had to hospitalize patients yet.”

Young children and elderly people are most at risk from the flu and its complications. The highest hospitalization rate for flu patients this season, as in most years, is for people age 65 and older. Unusually, however, people ages 50 to 64 have the second highest hospitalization rate, rather than children.

“In other words, baby boomers have higher (hospitalization) rates than (their) grandchildren right now,” said Dr. Daniel Jernigan, director of CDC’s influenza division.

Health experts recommend common-sense precautions to help prevent the flu, which is spread through droplets of saliva and mucus. Those include staying home from work or school if you are sick, frequent hand-cleaning, and covering coughs and sneezes.

Also, it is not too late to get a flu vaccine. “It is important that we all take steps to prevent flu from spreading, including getting a flu shot because it is among the best protections we have,” said Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel. This year’s flu shot is aimed at the strains that are sickening Americans, mostly the H3N2 flu virus.

Doctors recommend treatment with antiviral drugs for people who are very sick with flu symptoms or at high risk of developing serious complications. Tylenol or ibuprofen, rest and plenty of fluids are recommended for other flu patients.

Following these basic steps should help prevent an already bad flu season from becoming much worse.