AUGUSTA, Maine — A second adult in Penobscot County has died of swine flu, bringing Maine’s overall tally to three.
Nationally, swine flu has sickened about 22 million Americans since April and killed nearly 4,000, including 540 children, according to startling federal estimates released Thursday.
The figures — roughly a quadrupling of previous death estimates — don’t mean swine flu suddenly has worsened, and most cases still don’t require a doctor’s care. Instead, the numbers are a long-awaited better attempt to quantify the new flu’s true toll.
“I am expecting all of these numbers, unfortunately, to continue to rise,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have a long flu season ahead of us.”
Maine Public Health Director Dr. Dora Anne Mills said Thursday afternoon that the latest victim in Maine was a person in the 50-64 age group who had a “very serious” underlying medical condition. Officials did not release the gender of the victim.
The first Mainer to die of swine flu was a York County man in his 50s in August. Then last week, state officials reported the death of a young Penobscot County man, said to be between 18 and 25. Both also were reported to have had serious underlying medical conditions. No other details about the victims, including what their prior medical problems were, have been released.
Mills said Thursday afternoon those who live and work in Penobscot County should not be concerned that a second death has occurred there less than a week after the first.
“I think it’s just more coincidental than anything,” said Mills, who added she has not yet been vaccinated.
In Maine this week, swine flu has caused 19 hospitalizations, including two adults in intensive care, and accounted for one in six emergency room visits.
Until now, the federal CDC has conservatively estimated more than 1,000 deaths and “many millions” of new H1N1 infections. The agency was devoting more time to battling the pandemic than to counting it, and earlier figures were based on laboratory-confirmed cases even as doctors largely quit using flu tests months ago.
Thursday’s federal CDC report attempts to calculate the first six months of the new H1N1 strain’s spread, from April through mid-October.
The CDC said:
• Some 98,000 people have been hospitalized from this new flu or its complications, including 36,000 children, 53,000 adults younger than 65 and 9,000 older adults.
• Deaths could range from a low of 2,500 to as many as 6,100, depending on how the data are analyzed. CDC settled on 3,900 as the best estimate.
• Some 8 million children have become ill, 12 million adults younger than 65 and 2 million older adults.
In a typical winter, seasonal flu strains cause 200,000 U.S. hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths, the vast majority in people over 65. Seasonal influenza doesn’t usually start circulating until November while swine flu began a big climb in September, leading to what CDC called unprecedented high levels of illness so early in a season — and no way to know when the flu will peak.
The estimate of child deaths may seem especially surprising, considering that the CDC’s conservative count of lab-confirmed deaths a week ago was 129.
“We don’t think things have changed from last week to this week,” Schuchat stressed, explaining the importance of looking beyond those lab counts. It’s “a better estimate for the big picture of what’s out there.”
Mills said Thursday afternoon about 150-200 Mainers a year die from seasonal flu. Most of the deaths occur in the 65-and-over age group.
“It’s important to remember that flu at any time is serious,” she said. “The difference [with swine flu] is it’s hitting young people very hard.”
State officials reported 65 outbreaks this week (up from 24 last week), all in school settings where absentee rates are above 15 percent.
Schools in the Jonesport-Beals area reopened Thursday after flu-related closures at the beginning of the week and the scheduled closure Wednesday for Veterans Day.
“We’re pretty much back to normal,” Chris Crowley, the lead teacher at Beals Elementary School, said Thursday.
At one point the school had a 25 percent to 30 percent absenteeism rate, he said. There was just one confirmed case of H1N1 influenza, but many sick students are no longer being tested for the virus.
“They might have had it,” Crowley said.
The school superintendent in Winthrop on Tuesday canceled classes for the rest of the week because of a swine flu outbreak there.
Outbreaks in schools occurred in the following counties: Androscoggin (10 schools), Aroostook (2), Cumberland (5), Hancock (3), Kennebec (7), Oxford (3), Penobscot (18), Piscataquis (1), Sagadahoc (1), Somerset (3), Waldo (3), and York (9).
The question now is what effect the latest estimates will have on a public that largely views swine flu as not that big a threat.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll, conducted last weekend, shows nearly one in six parents has had at least some of their children vaccinated against swine flu since inoculations began last month. Another 14 percent of parents sought vaccine but couldn’t find any.
The poll also found that 23 percent of responders — and 27 percent of parents — were very likely to keep seeking vaccine.
Swine flu targets young adults, too, yet just 16 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were very likely to seek vaccine, down from 34 percent in September.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Nov. 5-9 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved land line and cell phone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.