Flu season is here, and local health officials warn it could be a busy one.
The pediatric emergency room at AdventHealth Tampa recorded a 30 percent increase in patients this month, with about half of those coming in with flu-like symptoms, said Brandon Bougard, a registered nurse and the hospital’s assistant vice president of emergency care.
“I do think we’re in for a busy season, more compared to what we saw in 2017-18 than last year," he said. "This season started early. We started seeing active cases in August.”
While it’s too early to predict just how bad the flu season will be nationally, some look to Australia as an indicator of what’s to come.
Just like the U.S., that country had a heavy flu season two years ago, followed by a lighter season this past year. So officials are taking note that, this year, Australians saw the flu arrive early and with a vengeance. Outbreaks there started in April, resulting in more than 660 deaths so far.
The U.S. flu season comes about six months after Australia’s as winter reaches the Northern Hemisphere. Though it isn’t always foolproof, U.S. health officials say using trends in other parts of the world can help predict what the flu season will be like at home.
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About 79,000 people in the U.S., including 180 children, died in the 2017-18 season because of the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 900,000 people were hospitalized, including many in Tampa Bay. Florida reported 515 outbreaks in all, and at least six child deaths from the flu during the season.
Last year’s flu season was mild in comparison.
“Even if the flu is active nationwide, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be as active in Tampa Bay. It’s hard to generalize,”said Dr. Kaley Tash, an infectious disease specialist with USF Health. Tash is the daughter of Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of Times Publishing Co.
So far this year, Bougard at AdventHealth said the hospital is seeing multiple strains of influenza, but influenza B seems to be most prevalent.
“Almost like hurricane season, it’s difficult to say just how bad this season will be. It’s one of those things you have to see play out,” said Tom Iovino, a spokesman with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. “One good piece advice is to get your shot now.”
Even though influenza rates are low across Florida and most of the U.S. right now, local health departments and physicians say that getting the flu vaccine is the best way to reduce the chance of catching it.
The vaccine won’t necessarily prevent the flu, it will help lessen the symptoms if someone catches the virus. It’s safe for anyone six months or older, and a stronger dosage is recommended for patients 65 and older.
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“I understand people are sick of hearing ‘Go get your flu shot,’ but even though it’s not perfect technology for preventing influenza illness, it’s pretty darn good at keeping you out of the hospital,” Tash said. “We’ve all lost patients to flu, even in a quiet season.”
Health officials recommend getting the vaccine before Halloween. It takes about two weeks for the body to build up immunity after receiving the shot, Iovino said.
If a person is experiencing severe symptoms, like trouble breathing, high fever, vomiting and general disorientation, they should go to a hospital emergency room. Early and mild symptoms like a cough, sore throat and congestion, can be treated and diagnosed at an urgent care center.
Tamiflu is the most common prescription medication available to treat flu symptoms, but it’s generally only effective if the flu is diagnosed in the first few days of experiencing symptoms.
Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new flu medication called Xofluza, which is a single-dose antiviral medication that can be prescribed to patients 12 years or older. Like Tamiflu, it is effective in patients who have felt sick for less than 48 hours.
“Tamiflu is the tried and true medication for flu season,” Tash said. “Xofluza is a single dose, which is great. But because it’s new, some patients might have trouble getting it quickly approved by their insurance.”
Retailers like Publix, Winn-Dixie, CVS and Walgreens are offering promotions for flu shots right now.
Also, county health departments in Florida offer events for free flu shots during the season. Pinellas County is hosting its annual “Flu Boo” from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 26 at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S in St. Petersburg.