As influenza cases reach epidemic levels across the United States, flu is being blamed for 12 deaths in Kentucky over the past six weeks, and hospital rooms locally have been filled with patients suffering from the virus.
There have been more 430 deaths nationwide blamed solely on the flu in the past three weeks.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control put the percentage of deaths from flu and pneumonia two weeks ago, the last figures available, at 7 percent of all deaths in the U.S., the epidemic threshold for the week.
Deanna Sparkman, Community CEO of Whitesburg ARH Hospital, said she is not aware of any deaths here as a result of the flu, but the hospital has seen 58 confirmed cases of the flu this month. Combined with other illnesses, that was enough to fill the hospital up.
“About a week or so ago we were full, but we have some capacity now,” Sparkman said.
Whitesburg ARH is licensed for 90 beds, but can handle only about 75 to 80 patients at a time.
The 58 cases of flu confirmed here are probably not the full extent of the outbreak. Doctors say the flu test has returned many false negatives this year, meaning the test showed people did not have the flu even though symptoms clearly showed they did. Similarly, the vaccine has not been as effective this year due to mutation of one of the viruses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
As usual, influenza affects the very old and the very young the worst. Sparkman said everyone should have a flu vaccine, even if they are worried that it isn’t as effective as normal, or if they have already had the flu. There are several different strains of flu each year, and someone who contracts a flu virus could still get a genetically different influenza virus after they recover.
“Some protection is better than none,” Sparkman said.
People should stay out of crowds as much as a possible, wear a mask if they have the flu or have a compromised immune system, and wear gloves. People who have the flu should cover their mouths when they cough.
“Stay in, hunker down and ride it out,” Sparkman advised. “Hand-washing is the big one — there is really no substitute.”
According to the CDC, there are 13 more weeks of flu season, but exactly when the season will end and when the number of cases will begin to fall off is anyone’s guess. January and February are usually the worst two months, Sparkman said, and this year the local hospital has seen more cases than normal for this month.
“Hopefully it’s peaked early this year,” she said.
Complicating the treatment of flu and other illnesses in some parts of the country is the shortage of IV bags used to dilute medications. Many of those sterile plastic bags were produced in Puerto Rico, most of which has been without electricity since Hurricane Maria devastated the island territory on September 20. Baxter International Inc., one of the largest makers of the bags, told CNN power was restored to its plant shortly before the holidays.
The shortage has not affected the Whitesburg hospital, Sparkman said, which had taken precautions to make sure it didn’t run out.