June 22, 2018
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‘Severe’ flu and stomach bug hitting Maine hard; some schools seeing 40 percent of students absent

By Jackie Farwell, Nick McCrea and Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

The flu remains widespread in Maine with the state Center for Disease Control confirming the illness as a cause of high absentee rates at four schools in different counties.

While the flu’s severity may be easing nationally, according to weekly data released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears says it continues to be a concern here.

“Every doctor’s office I know is busy seeing people and vaccinating,” he said Friday.

Maine and 46 other states reported widespread flu activity, according to the national CDC report, which covers the week of Dec. 30 through Jan 5. That’s up from 41 states the prior week. The only states without widespread flu were Mississippi, California and Hawaii.

On Wednesday, Boston declared a public health emergency due to a tenfold increase in flu cases.

While the flu spread geographically, the number of states hit hard with people seeking treatment for influenza-like illness at outpatient clinics declined last week. Twenty-four states had high activity, down from 29 the previous week. Maine was among five states labeled with “minimal” activity, but that doesn’t accurately reflect the flu’s toll here, according to Sears.

Health providers voluntarily report the number of outpatients with flu-like symptoms, he said. With many health clinics crowded with flu patients in recent days, providers are hard pressed to find time to report all those visits, Sears said.

Health officials have investigated 65 outbreaks so far this season in Maine, far eclipsing the 10 outbreaks reported during the mild 2011-2012 flu season.

Nationally, two more children have died from the flu since last week’s report, bringing the total to 20. A child from central Maine died from the flu in mid-December.

Nationally, 7.3 percent of deaths last week were attributed to pneumonia and the flu. That just barely crosses the epidemic threshold of 7.2 percent, according to the CDC.

The CDC doesn’t track adult flu deaths, but Maine public health officials have received anecdotal reports that the flu has claimed some adult lives, as it typically does every season, Sears said. The elderly and people with underlying medical conditions are particularly vulnerable.

“There will be deaths from this,” he said. “This is significant, severe influenza.”

Public schools in Maine are required to report to the Maine CDC if 15 percent or more of students are absent from illnesses. Sears said two schools had reported absentee rates above the threshold before January and three more have contacted the CDC so far this month.

While his office’s policy is to not release information about specific schools that are affected, Sears said the reporting schools are located in Western Maine, and in Cumberland, Somerset and Waldo counties. All but one of those cases so far has been confirmed caused by the flu. The fifth remains under investigation.

Susan Pratt, superintendent of Regional School Unit 40, which includes Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, said more than 4 out of every 10 students were absent from classes Thursday.

She said the district notified the state CDC this week when the absenteeism rate reached 20 percent at the high school Monday and that she has been in contact with the CDC each day since.

Pratt said she did not believe all the absences were due to the flu.

“There’s a respiratory virus, a stomach virus and the flu virus going around. It’s the perfect storm,” she said.

On Thursday, 41 percent of students at Medomak Valley High School were absent. That amounts to about 250 of the 600 students enrolled at the school.

The district is following the recommendations of the CDC by urging regular hand washing, sending people home if they appear to be sick, and encouraging people to get flu shots, Pratt said. Schools in the district also have increased the cleaning and disinfecting of common areas and buses in an effort to control the spread of viruses.

Neighboring school districts in the Camden and Rockland area have thus far been spared the wrath of the flu, but superintendents were monitoring attendance closely. So far staff and student absences have been at normal levels in their areas, they reported.

With thousands of University of Maine students poised to return from their winter break this weekend in preparation of classes resuming Monday, the Orono campus also is bracing for any outbreak of illness that may follow.

“Anytime there’s potential for an outbreak, we go into planning mode,” said Wayne Maines, director of Safety, Environmental Management, Transportation and Security at UMaine.

When the Maine CDC first warned the public of the potentially severe outbreak in late December, the university’s Emergency Management Team began planning for a potential outbreak and informing students, faculty and staff of what they could do to reduce the chances of influenza becoming widespread on campus.

A series of emails were sent to students and faculty urging them to get vaccinated and take other precautions against the flu.

“We also want to promote all the simple things that you can do: Wash your hands, [use] hand sanitizer, stay home when you don’t feel well, and try to be well and get some sleep, which is a challenge for students sometimes,” Maines said during an interview at the Cutler Health Center on campus Friday.

The university started providing flu shots on campus in October, and has administered more than 1,000 vaccinations since, according to Maines.

The university also has plans it can implement if it does see a sudden spike in flu. For example, if a residence hall starts to see a high number of occurrences, the university will scale up the cleaning efforts in that dorm. If students fall ill and don’t believe they should leave their rooms, the university has a service that will deliver meals and other necessities to them.

If a student or staff or faculty member catches the flu or is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, he or she is encouraged to log onto FirstClass and go to the “Wellness” section to notify staff. The university will use that information to monitor whether an outbreak has started in a certain residence hall or building.

“Now, we’re just in the hurry-up-and-wait mode … but we’re ready,” Maines said.

Also Friday, CDC scientists said a recent study of more than 1,100 people found that this season’s flu vaccine is 62 percent effective. That’s considered “moderate” effectiveness and in line with previous years.

The vaccine is reformulated each year to match emerging strains of the illness. This year’s vaccine offers good protection against all three strains circulating nationally, according to health officials.

The CDC still encourages everyone over 6 months of age to be vaccinated against the flu, including those who were immunized last year. While vaccinated people may still get sick with the flu, most experience shorter and less severe symptoms than those who skipped their annual flu shot.

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