Worst-in-years flu season spreading in Florida

The flu has started to rage in Florida, but though it’s widespread, it’s not likely to be a pandemic like the lethal swine-flu that struck in 2009-2010.

01/09/2013 3:35 PM

01/09/2013 6:02 PM

Florida’s flu season is one of the worst in years and more sickness is on the way.

The flu struck people throughout the state and nation early this year, starting in late November, and its prevalence has only increased since.

That became clear on Jan. 2, when the Memorial Hospital Pembroke Urgent Care Center rang in the New Year flu season with a bang, as well as whimpers, coughs and sneezes from a packed waiting room. It was the clinic’s busiest day ever.

“We had close to 200 patients during the day, which we’ve never had before,” said Dr. Roy Dubash, family medicine physician at the clinic.

“I have not seen it busier,” he said. “It has really seemed to take off the last week.”

Florida is one of 29 states that have been classified as having “high” flu-like activity this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC reports that the flu season began early this year in the Southeast.

The Florida Department of Health reported the state had “widespread” flu-like activity in the final week of 2012, the most-recent report for which data is available. Of the 18 children who have died with flu-like symptoms, two were from Florida and lived in Polk and Wakulla counties.

Statewide, about 5 percent of emergency-room and clinic visits were due to patients exhibiting influenza-like symptoms as of last week, according to health department data.

The last time the rate was this high: November 2009, during the H1N1 flu pandemic implicated in 230 deaths in Florida. In September of that flu season, about 7 percent of emergency-room and clinic visits were flu-related.

Florida health officials don’t expect a pandemic this year, despite the high rate of flu and influenza like illness, nicknamed “ILI.” They say people shouldn’t panic, but they should wash their hands, stay home if sick and get their flu shots.

“The amount of influenza and ILI that we’re seeing in Florida this year should not be downplayed, and our prevention messages for hygiene and vaccination are extremely important,” state health department spokeswoman Ashley Carr said. .

“Our combined surveillance systems show that while influenza activity is high right now, these levels are not unprecedented,” Carr said, “and we certainly are not seeing more activity than in the 2009 pandemic.”

In Massachusetts, it’s a different story. The state has reported 18 flu-related deaths. Boston declared a public-health emergency Wednesday.

In Florida, on a local level, none of the 67 counties reported “widespread” flu-like activity. But 20 are at the next-highest level, “moderate,” including Broward County.

Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties reported “mild” activity as of the last week at year’s end, the most recent report available from the health department.

Miami-Dade’s school district and Miami Children’s Hospital both say that they’re not seeing a high level of flu activity, at least not yet.

“However, positive responses from patient influenza testing (Emergency Department, Urgent Care Centers and inpatients) are slightly higher than the same period last year,” Rachel Perry, a spokeswoman for Miami Children’s hospital, said in an email.

Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, chief of emergency medicine at Broward Health, said that he and his physicians have seen double the number of patients with flu-like symptoms compared to this point last year.

“We haven’t hit the peak yet,” El Sanadi said.

So far, El Sanadi said, the flu bug doesn’t seem to make people as sick as in prior years. However, he said, that could change.

The flu season is usually over in Florida in February or early March.

“People need to be vigilant,” El Sanadi said. “If you haven’t yet had the flu or your vaccination, you should get your flu shot.”

The vaccine should reduce the intensity and duration of the illness. Those with children should consult a pediatrician before vaccinating, he said.

Fox News reported that this year’s predominant flu strain afflicting the nation, however, resembles a bug in 2003-2004 when the vaccine “wasn’t a good match” for combating the virus. There were about 40,000 associated deaths that year.

CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner said it’s too early to tell how effective this season’s vaccine is. He said the agency is collecting data and will release a study in the coming weeks.

Doctors give these common-sense tips to keep the illness from spreading so easily:

People who are sick should stay home, and everyone should wash their hands frequently and sneeze or cough into shirts or elbows.

Unless people are gravely ill, they should probably stay home or consult their family physician before heading to an urgent-care clinic or, especially, an emergency room, doctors say.

Otherwise, an influx of sick people at a clinic will simply suffer there rather than at home, where they can lie in bed, drink water and sip chicken soup.

“Right now, there’s definitely a waiting room full,” said Dr. Dubash at South Broward’s urgent-care clinic. “The beds are full. We’re not bringing people back because there are no beds available.”

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