This flu season so far, in the words of one Maine infectious disease specialist: boring.
Flu vaccines seem to be a good match for the viruses circulating. Fewer Mainers are coughing and aching. Local emergency rooms are all but empty of flu patients.
So far, no big deal.
“Last year there was tons of information to discuss because it started earlier than usual and there was lots of fear of an unusual season,” Dr. Imad Durra, infectious disease specialist at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, said. “This year is just a boring year so far.”
But while Maine is having a pleasantly dull year of it so far, experts also say the state probably hasn’t reached its flu season peak yet. Boring can turn eventful.
“We just have to emphasize the prevention message,” Durra said.
Flu season can stretch from October to May nationally. It typically peaks in January or February.
Although last year’s flu numbers didn’t end up extraordinarily high in Maine, the season started early and the flu spread fast. By the time Maine’s flu season peaked, one child had died, 135 outbreaks were reported in long-term care facilities and some schools were dealing with plummeting attendance.
This year’s flu season has so far been more typical, with numbers low and slow to grow.
But as of Jan 4., the flu was newly categorized as “widespread” in Maine, with cases confirmed in all 16 counties, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 20 other states also reported widespread flu.
Aroostook and Penobscot counties have the most lab-confirmed cases of the flu, with 61 in Aroostook and 89 in Penobscot, as of Jan. 4. Androscoggin and Franklin counties have had three lab-confirmed cases each, and Oxford County has had one.
Area emergency rooms, which were bombarded by feverish, achy patients this time last year, have seen almost no flu so far this season. Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington has handled two flu cases. Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway has had none.
No official numbers were available for Central Maine Medical Center, but officials there said they have seen no increase from years past.
St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston has handled seven cases so far this season. By this time last year it had dealt with 45.
“So we’re seeing a lot fewer,” St. Mary’s spokeswoman Jennifer Radel said. “Maybe folks are getting their flu shots. Hopefully.”
This year’s vaccine appears to be a good match for the viruses that are circulating, which means that those who get the shot are getting some protection from the flu around them.
“So we’re encouraging (the vaccine),” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC. “That’s the cornerstone of therapy, to make sure people are getting vaccinated.”
One of this year’s predominant strains tends to affect a younger population, particularly children and young adults. Experts say, though, that all age groups should get a flu shot.
“It does not eliminate the risk of influenza. It reduces the risk of influenza, and it makes it less severe,” Durra said. “It is very important to get vaccinated.”
Experts expect this year’s flu season to peak in the coming weeks, but they say it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
They also say the old-fashioned ways of preventing the spread of the flu — such as hand washing and covering a cough — can also help.
“Make sure if you’re sick, stay home,” Pinette said.
Bangor Daily News health editor Jackie Farwell contributed to this report.