Flu widespread across U.S. for third straight week

Mike Stobbe
Associated Press

New York – Sick with the flu? You’ve got a lot of company.

The flu blanketed the U.S. again last week for the third straight week. Only Hawaii has been spared.

Last week, 1 in 15 doctor visits were for symptoms of the flu. That’s the highest level since the swine flu pandemic in 2009. The government doesn’t track every flu case but comes up with estimates; one measure is how many people seek medical care for fever, cough, aches and other flu symptoms.

Flu is widespread in every state except Hawaii, and 39 states reported high flu traffic for doctors last week, up from 32.

Michigan is among the regions with such cases. Some 318 positive influenza results have been recorded at the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services Bureau of Laboratories for the 2017-18 season through Jan. 13, according to a report posted on the website.

“Schools on the west side of the state are reporting large student absences, health facilities across the region are flooded with patients exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and a lab at the University of Michigan School of Public Health that records flu data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been busy keeping up with an abundance of laboratory samples,” UM officials said in a statement Friday.

High volumes of cases have prompted some hospitals in Metro Detroit, including Children’s Hospital of Michigan and eight Beaumont sites, to restrict visitation rights for children younger than 13 years old.

However, the flu cases in Michigan this year “are probably getting near the peak,” said Arnold Monto, UM professor of epidemiology and global public health. “It’s a bad outbreak, but it’s a little spotty. I don’t think we’ve seen nearly as much flu in Michigan as in some of the states where they’ve been unable to handle the volume of cases in the hospital.”

At this rate, by the end of the season somewhere around 34 million Americans will have gotten sick from the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Some good news: Hospital stays and deaths from the flu among the elderly so far haven’t been as high as in some other recent flu seasons. However, hospitalization rates for people 50 to 64 – baby boomers, mostly – has been unusually high, CDC officials said in the report, which covers the week ending Jan. 20.

This year’s flu shot targets the strains that are making Americans sick, mostly the H3N2 flu virus. But exactly how well it is working won’t be known until next month. It’s the same main bug from last winter, when the flu season wasn’t so bad. It’s not clear why this season – with the same bug – is worse, some experts said.

“That’s the kicker. This virus really doesn’t look that different from what we saw last year,” said Richard Webby, a flu researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

It may be that many of the people getting sick this year managed to avoid infection last year. Or there may be some change in the virus that hasn’t been detected yet, said the CDC’s Dr. Dan Jernigan, in a call with reporters Friday.

Based on patterns from past seasons, it’s likely the flu season will start to wane soon, experts say. There are some places, like California, where the season already seems to be easing, CDC officials said.

“If I was a betting man, I’d put money on it going down,” Webby said. “But I’ve lost money on bets before.”

The season usually peaks in February, but this season started early and took off in December.

In Michigan, the season can extend into April and sometimes May, Monto said. “We only know that an outbreak has peaked when it starts going down. We really haven’t seen that yet. We think we’re still really seeing a fair amount of flu, which means there’s still time to get the vaccine.”

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness. It can cause a miserable but relatively mild illness in many people, but more a more severe illness in others. Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk from flu and its complications. In a bad season, there as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu.

In the U.S., annual flu shots are recommended for everyone age 6 months or older. Last seasons, about 47 percent of Americans got vaccinated, according to CDC figures.

“Everybody is supposed to get the flu vaccine every year,” Monto said. “Vaccine takes a couple weeks to work, but the vaccine contains three or four different components including type B, and type B usually comes along toward the end of the season. So if you get it too late to get protection right now, you still have protection for the rest of the flu season.”

To prevent infection, Ann Arbor-based NSF International recommends area residents:

■Eat healthy and take certified vitamins.

■Disinfect surfaces.

■Avoid going into work when you feel the onset of cold symptoms.

■Avoid eating in or using common areas such as break rooms and cafeterias.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.