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Flu season’s almost over, but Tampa Bay kids keep getting sick

Pediatricians and hospitals report an unusual number of children are catching influenza at an unusual time of year.
Diego Moreno, 1, looks while Walgreens pharmacist Bhargavi Patel gives his mother Juanita Gonzalez a free flu shot in Plant City in October 2020. The flu had been less of a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic, when masks and social distancing were in effect, but now Tampa Bay is seeing a rise in cases at an unusual time of year.
Diego Moreno, 1, looks while Walgreens pharmacist Bhargavi Patel gives his mother Juanita Gonzalez a free flu shot in Plant City in October 2020. The flu had been less of a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic, when masks and social distancing were in effect, but now Tampa Bay is seeing a rise in cases at an unusual time of year. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 21|Updated May 21

Tampa Bay’s children hospitals are reporting an increase in the number of children battling the flu as Florida is seeing an unusual rise in cases late in the flu season.

Polk County is leading the state with what’s classified as “elevated” levels of the flu, according to state data. Pinellas’ is experiencing a “moderate” outbreak, which still gives it the second-highest level of transmission in the state.

Almost 400 cases have been confirmed so far this month at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, hospital officials said. That’s up from just 15 in March. Cases have also risen at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, according to BayCare officials.

The number of infections is rising in 32 of the state’s 67 counties, according to the Florida Department of Health. However, despite the uptick, the level of flu activity still is considered mild in most of the state.

Related: CDC urges Pfizer’s COVID booster for children ages 5 to 11

Flu season typically starts in October with Florida’s infections often peaking around December and January. But those cycles were thrown off by the now two-year pandemic, when COVID-19 prevention strategies like masking and social distancing essentially flatlined the number of flu cases during the 2020-21 influenza season.

By the summer of 2021, when most mask mandates were ended, the number of flu cases began to rise even out of season, said Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at All Children’s.

Florida may be seeing a second peak of cases in a single season at a time when major pharmacies and some grocery stores no longer are offering flu vaccines — and there is limited supply of flu medication.

“One thing we have learned through the course of the pandemic over the last two years is how strongly human behavior influences the course of these routine epidemics of different viruses,” Dumois said “It is now going up, in part, because more and more people feel like there is no need to be cautious, that the pandemic is over.”

Related: Mysterious hepatitis cases rising among kids. What’s causing it?

Influenza A is the predominant strain spreading at the moment, Dumois said. It’s not considered a particularly virulent strain. Most children who are treated at the hospital are prescribed medication and sent home.

But the virus can be serious for pregnant women and those with underlying health issues such as asthma or a weakened immune system. Children age 2 and under who catch flu are as likely to be hospitalized as those 65 and over.

Children with coughs and high fevers have been arriving every day this month at Pediatric Health Care Alliance’s office on 13th Avenue N near Tyrone Square Mall.

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Flu cases started rising in March when 133 children treated at the clinic tested positive. So far this month, the clinic has seen 963 infected children, said pediatrician Stephen Voltarel.

Many of those have temperatures at about 103 degrees or higher. One child was at 106.

Voltarel urged parents whose children start to exhibit flu symptoms like a chesty cough or fever to quickly seek treatment. He said symptoms are typically worse in unvaccinated children.

“This is very late in the season for flu,” Voltarel said. “School is a week away from being out — that will have a dramatic effect on its person-to-person spread.”

Related: Baby formula shortage is a nightmare for Tampa Bay parents

Voltarel said he has heard from patients that it has been difficult to obtain Tamiflu, the most common medication prescribed to treat flu symptoms. The drug is generally effective only if the flu is diagnosed in the first few days of experiencing symptoms. It is often in short supply during infection surges.

His clinic has been writing patients paper prescriptions instead of sending them electronically, he said, so parents have more options to find a supply.

Three out of five Walgreens stores in St. Petersburg contacted by the Tampa Bay Times on Friday said they were out of the drug. Pharmacy chain CVS reported a recent increase in demand for Tamiflu nationally.

“We’re continuing to supply pharmacies with Tamiflu using our existing supply chain network, although there may be instances when individual pharmacies could be temporarily out of stock,” said spokesperson Amy Thibault.

It may be difficult for parents to protect their children from catching the flu; CVS, Walgreens and Publix currently do not offer flu shots.

Related: Being autistic in Florida means delayed diagnosis, delayed therapy

The number of flu cases is up across BayCare’s 15 hospitals in the Tampa Bay region, said Christina Canody, medical director of pediatric services.

She said a later than usual Easter and associated travel may have contributed to that as well as a drop in the number of patients who have gotten flu vaccines.

“Masks are very helpful in decreasing spread and the numbers came up at almost the exact same time that the mask mandates were lifted,” she said.

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