The flu rocked Tampa Bay and the rest of the nation last year with record-breaking outbreaks and deaths. But as we near the peak of the flu season in February, local health officials are encouraged by only moderate reports of activity so far.
As of the third week of the season, the Florida Department of Health is reporting a total of 74 outbreaks across the state, with 11 of those requiring hospitalization and two deaths. Pinellas and Hillsborough were two of eight counties that reported “moderate” activity, while most counties are seeing a "mild" season to date.
"So far we saw an increase at the start of the season, in November and December, but it's actually decreased some since the end of December," said Michael Wiese, an epidemiologist with the Hillsborough County Health Department. "We have yet to hit the peak, which is generally in February."
Across the country, there have been 11.4 million reports of flu and 136,000 flu hospitalizations since October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-two children have died. In 12 states where there have been hotbeds of activity, some schools have closed their doors. However, most hospitalizations have been among older people.
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More than 80,000 people in the United States, including 180 children, died last season because of the flu, the CDC reported. About 900,000 people were hospitalized, including many in Tampa Bay. The state reported 515 outbreaks in all, and at least six child deaths from the flu during the 2017-2018 season
This time last year, residents and visitors were overwhelming emergency rooms across the bay area. Pinellas was among the most active counties in the state for outbreaks during peak season. Influenza-like illnesses were reported at higher levels in Florida by the start of the year than during the peak of the previous two flu seasons, health officials said.
“It’s too soon to predict the season, but nationally and in Florida the numbers are down,” said Dr. Steven Seltzer at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. “What is unique to Florida is how travel affects the flu season here. People are coming our way to get out of the cold. The flu is highly contagious and spreads very fast.”
Local health departments and physicians say that getting the flu vaccine is the best way to ward off the chance of catching it. The vaccine won't necessarily prevent the flu, but if someone catches the virus, it will help lessen the symptoms.
“The flu season isn’t over until the spring. You can still have someone catch it in May, so it’s never too late to get a flu shot,” Seltzer said.
H1N1 seems to be the dominant strain of the virus this year, said Margarita Hall, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Health Department, though there are some reported cases of influenza A. Other countries, like Canada, are reporting that this year's vaccine is 70 percent effective against H1N1.
"We are strongly urging anyone who hadn’t gotten this year’s vaccine to get it now because they can still protect themselves," Hall said.
If someone is experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms, they can be diagnosed and treated early at an urgent care center.
If a person is experiencing severe symptoms, like trouble breathing, high fever, vomiting and general disorientation, they should go to a hospital emergency room, said Dr. Nzem Uzo, a physician with Centra Care, the AdventHealth urgent care system, in Wesley Chapel. Early and mild symptoms like a cough, sore throat and congestion, can be treated and diagnosed at an urgent care center, she said.
“Patients get a bit confused on when to go to an urgent care or an emergency room,” Uzo said. “If a patient is experiencing severe symptoms, we would refer them to the E.R.”
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.