Five Georgia flu patients have died, with perhaps more to be announced this Friday. Some metro Atlanta hospitals are asking visitors not to come if they have flu symptoms. The epidemiology chief for influenza at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has colleagues who turned from pharmacy to pharmacy in Atlanta without finding antiviral flu drugs.
This is the 2017-18 flu season. It has at least 11 weeks to go.
The epidemic gripping the U.S., featuring a particularly difficult and adaptable strain, is hitting Georgia and other Southern and Western states with particular force.
A CDC map of its severity shows a red swath sweeping from Georgia westward.
In Alabama, for example, hospitals operating under a statewide state of emergency have begun running out of beds.
The severity might be less in bordering states such as Florida and Tennessee, but it’s still widespread there, too, because it’s widespread in every one of the continental U.S. states.
“That hasn’t happened in the last 13 years and maybe has not happened at once in the past,” Dr. Dan Jernigan, the director of the CDC’s influenza division, told attendees at a public meeting on the issue Tuesday, citing his agency’s surveillance experts.
The feeling of this epidemic’s strength may come “simply because of where it’s occurring,” Jernigan said, “which is everywhere.”
Dr. Ben Spitalnick, a Savannah pediatrician, said his office is seeing a wave of children whose parents wish they got their kids vaccinated or wished the vaccine worked better.
“We are seeing much higher volumes, of much sicker kids, than we usually see,” Spitalnick said.
The sights and sounds of his office are coughs and flushed faces of kids with aches and congestion. The scary part, Spitalnick said, is when the flu turns to a secondary infection such as pneumonia: “They don’t get better in the next few days; the fever gets higher, the cough gets worse, the appetite goes down and the breathing gets labored.”
The problems stem from the flu variant that is prominent this year. Called H3N2, it shape-shifts much faster than others in its effort to avoid human immune systems. And that works, outwitting individuals’ immune systems and efforts to develop vaccines against it. Flu vaccines have generally been effective against flu cases between 40 percent and 60 percent of the time over the years. With this year’s, it’s worse.
H3N2 is “incredibly difficult to work with, to prevent and to predict,” said the CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat. All the same, people 6 months old and over should still get immunized if they haven’t already, officials said. Some will be protected altogether, and others may still get some flu but be protected from additional sickness.
Layering one weakness on another is dangerous with flu. All five Georgia deaths occurred in elderly people, who are most at risk, along with small children. Three of the five victims had underlying health conditions as well. The next update showing Georgia flu deaths and hospitalizations for last week is expected Friday.
Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam acknowledged the difficulty with this year’s strain but said that didn’t change the need to get vaccinated. “The flu vaccine is always the best protection against the flu,” Nydam said. “Even if you do get sick, the vaccine can help reduce the severity and duration of your illness.”
The good news is that the number of hospitalizations may be peaking now, and officials have hope it may not reach the perhaps 700,000 who were hospitalized three years ago. But this week’s number has doubled over the previous week.
And the shortages some providers have seen of antiviral drugs should be spot shortages — the medicine and supplies are available somewhere but must be found and relocated.
The advice for people remains the same:
- Get vaccinated.
- Cover your mouth when you cough.
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Limit contact with others who might have the flu. This is why flu spreads in winter — people are indoors together.
And for patients, the worst thing you can do, Spitalnick said, is try to get back to school or work early, when you’re still contagious. See a doctor and get individual advice. Drink fluids, rest, take Tylenol, and drugs such as Tamiflu might shorten the sickness by a day or two.