June 24, 2019
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Flu activity dropping off in Maine, but severe illness still a possibility for many

David Goldman | AP
David Goldman | AP
Henry Beverly, 73, battles the flu while tended to by nurse Kathleen Burks at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga., on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. The flu has further tightened its grip on the U.S., and this season is now as bad as the swine flu epidemic nine years ago.

The harsh flu season that has sickened thousands of Mainers since September seems to have turned a corner, with fewer hospitalizations, institutional outbreaks, emergency room visits and deaths reported for the week that ended March 3.

Still, health experts say flu will remain a significant risk for weeks to come and that getting a vaccine remains an important preventive step.

Flu is still widespread in Maine and most other states, but according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new flu-related hospitalizations here dropped to 54 last week from 113 the week before, while new flu outbreaks in nursing homes, schools and other institutions fell from six to three. Flu was also linked to a smaller percentage of outpatient visits, emergency room visits and deaths compared to the previous week.

Though the numbers ebb and flow from week to week, the collective falling-off of these indicators could spell relief for Mainers hard-hit by this year’s flu season. But a spokeswoman for the Maine CDC says Mainers should still take precautions.

“Yes, it looks like we may now be past the peak as reports of hospitalizations, outbreaks, and positive tests are decreasing,” spokeswoman Emily Spencer said in an email on Wednesday. “However, we expect flu activity to continue.”

The flu season typically runs through April and into May, and Spencer said it’s not too late for a vaccine to help prevent the serious illness associated with this season’s mix of viral strains.

The annual flu vaccine is recommended for individuals 6 months old and older and is especially important for the very young, the elderly, those with chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, and anyone with a suppressed immune system.

At Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Dr. James Jarvis, senior vice president and chief medical executive, said Wednesday the emergency department has seen a small decrease in patients seeking care for flu-like illness, while hospital admissions have stayed the same, with about 10 patients being treated for flu at any given time.

But Jarvis said special influenza precautions for visitors instituted last month will stay in place, aimed at keeping flu from spreading within the hospital. Those precautions including screening visitors for flu-like symptoms and limiting the number of visitors per patient.

“I just don’t feel we’re at the end of flu season yet,” he said. Jarvis noted that in many years, a second spike of cases sickens additional people later in the season.

On the website of Maine Medical Center in Portland, a special page maintained by hospital epidemiologist Dr. August Valenti is devoted to this season’s flu.

“While MMC is seeing a decrease in the number of people coming to our ED [emergency department] and doctor’s offices with flu-like symptoms, it is too early to say that this year’s flu season is winding down,” Valenti writes.

The hospital continues to stress the importance of getting a vaccine and basic personal hygiene practices to prevent getting and spreading flu, including covering coughs and sneezes, frequent hand-washing, staying home when sick and keeping well nourished and well hydrated.

In Maine, about 64 adult deaths are tied to a diagnosis of influenza this season, though the unreported number may be higher. No pediatric deaths due to influenza have been reported here so far.

Nationally, adult deaths related to flu are running higher than average, the U.S. CDC reports, with the most recent weekly data showing that about 9 percent of all U.S. adult deaths were related to flu or pneumonia. About 114 pediatric deaths related to influenza have been reported across the country.

In its most recent weekly influenza summary, the U.S. CDC cautions that though flu activity appears to be dropping off in most regions, the severity of illness remains high. And while hospitalizations are lower now than in recent weeks, they are still higher than they were at the end of the severe 2014-2015 season. Flu activity is likely to remain elevated for several more weeks, the agency states.

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