Officials: Peninsula flu season to be ‘moderately severe’

Flu season has arrived on the North Olympic Peninsula with spikes in confirmed cases and hospitalizations but no laboratory-confirmed influenza deaths, health officials said.

Public health officers in Clallam and Jefferson counties say flu activity has ratcheted up on the Peninsula and across the state in what is shaping up to be a “moderately severe” season.

“It’s approaching outbreak levels here in Jefferson County in that we’re seeing more confirmed cases, hospitalization rates are going up and reports of cases in long-term care facilities are going up,” said Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.

“At this rate, we’re going to see the peak of flu season sometime this month.”

Dr. Christopher Frank, Clallam County health officer, said flu activity is considered widespread in Clallam County and statewide.

“We’re seeing an increase in hospitalizations, an increase in outpatient visits and some influenza in some (living) institutions,” Frank said.

“All indications are that it will be a moderately severe flu season.”

Flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting.

Influenza can be especially dangerous for pregnant women, young children, those 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions such as asthma and other chronic diseases. These people should contact their doctor’s office if they get flu-like symptoms.

The state Department of Health reported 29 laboratory-confirmed flu deaths as of Dec. 30, mostly in older populations.

Eight of those deaths were in Snohomish County, seven were in Spokane County and five were in Pierce County.

None of those deaths involved a Clallam or Jefferson county patient, state officials said.

There were 278 lab-confirmed flu deaths in Washington last flu season, up from 67 in the winter of 2015-16, according to the state Department of Health.

Last year’s influenza death rate was the highest since state health officials began keeping that statistic, Locke said.

“We’re on a similar trajectory,” Locke said of the current flu season.

Locke cautioned that reported flu deaths are the “tip of the iceberg” because some cases are never tested.

He predicted that the 2017-18 winter flu season would peak sometime later this month.

“Usually we can’t see the peak until after we’ve passed it,” Frank said in a Jan. 5 interview.

“There’s no indication that we’ve reached that yet.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, flu activity has jumped across the nation, with 36 states now reporting widespread flu activity.

Health officials say annual flu vaccination is the best method of prevention against illness, followed by covering coughs, proper hand-washing and staying home from school or work when sick.

“It’s still not too late to get the flu vaccine,” Locke said.

Officials say the shot can provide at least some protection and can help protect the most vulnerable populations who are at a higher risk from the flu.

Flu shots are readily available at most Peninsula pharmacies and clinics.

It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to reach its full effectiveness, Locke said.

The predominate flu strain this winter is the H3N2, an influenza A sub-type that first emerged as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, Locke said.

Fewer confirmed cases have been the H1N1 strain common in the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

“Unfortunately, H3N2 is the worst of the two,” Locke said.

“It tends to have higher rates of hospitalization.”

Health officials can predict the severity of a flu season based on reports from the southern hemisphere over the summer.

“Australia had a moderately severe season, mostly H3N2, so we’re expecting something similar,” Frank said.

For information on the flu, see the state Department of Health website at https://www.doh.wa.gov/.

Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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