For the first time in the 13 years that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been monitoring the flu, there is “widespread” activity in the entire continental United States.
Widespread is defined as laboratory-confirmed influenza cases in at least half of the regions in a state. All the lower 48 states, including Montana, have reported the flu as widespread, according to the CDC.
The most recent numbers through Jan. 20 — reports are typically a week behind — show 2,530 cases in Montana with 353 hospitalizations and 20 deaths. Missoula County reports 115 total cases with 41 hospitalizations and two flu-related deaths.
Flu season officially runs from the start of October through the end of May, although Cindy Farr, the Health Promotion Division director for Missoula City-County Health Department, said the number of cases starts to rise around mid-December.
“We are currently close to the same numbers as we were last year and this is typically the time that we see flu numbers peak for the season, and then they usually drop gradually beginning around early to mid-February,” Farr said.
Farr continued to say that it’s still not too late to get a flu shot, and people should stay home if they are sick, including not sending children to school who show flu-like symptoms.
Hospitals have taken their own precautions as well, implementing visitation restrictions intended to keep patients, caregivers and visitors healthy.
Stacy Rogge, regional director of marketing and communication for Providence Health & Services, said that both St. Patrick Hospital and St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson have imposed restrictions on visitors in response to the flu. Those restrictions include no more than two visitors per patient at a time; visitors must be an immediate family member or over the age of 18; and visitors to maternity, intensive care units and pediatrics must be 18 or older.
Similarly, St. Peter’s Regional Medical Center in Helena is restricting children under the age of 12 and anyone with a fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose or congestion from visiting patients, employees or others in the hospital.
“Although the flu is common, it can be deadly,” Dr. Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer at St. Peter’s, said in a Jan. 15 press release. “We are putting these visitation restrictions in place because the safety of our patients is our top priority.”
Last week, the flu hit the Hellgate High School wrestling program particularly hard, almost putting the team in jeopardy of missing the Garden City Duals. Ultimately, the team was able to send four wrestlers to compete.
The most common influenza type identified this season for Montana and the nation is Influenza A H3N2, which has hit people over the age of 65 the hardest.
“In seasons where H3N2 is the main cause of influenza, we see more cases, more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations and more deaths, especially among older people,” Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC’s Influenza Division, said in a conference call last week.
He added that this season is starting to look like the 2014-15 season, when H3N2 predominated and which was categorized as a “high severity season.”
According to the CDC, vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year but recent studies have shown getting the flu shot reduces the risk of illness by about 40 to 60 percent.
Along with the vaccine, people should frequently wash their hands and cover a cough or sneeze to further prevent the spread of the flu.