The flu season is hitting communities across the United States hard. Some states, like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, are reporting deaths related to the flu in the double digits.
“What we have is widespread but medium intensity,” Edie Jeffers, a spokesperson for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, said about the level of local impact.
It’s the same statewide.
“We’re seeing the flu in most regions of the state all at the same time,” said Donn Moyer, the media relations manager for the state Department of Health. “For reference, it’s quite common to reach a widespread level. The East Coast states have been absolutely hammered.”
Moyer said there have been seven lab-confirmed deaths related to flu statewide as of Jan. 16. That includes one boy younger than 12 in Pierce County.
Jeffers said the county health department reported a second death of a person in their 70s. Moyer said that information had not reached the state department as of press time.
At this stage in the flu season, the deaths reported are relatively few when compared with previous seasons. Last year, there were 18 statewide deaths; in 2010-11 there were 36; and in 2009-10, during the swine flu epidemic, there were 98 confirmed deaths.
“We do expect the numbers to go up,” Moyer said. “That is unfortunate, but it’s also reality.”
Moyer said there are usually one or two child deaths related to flu during a typical flu season.
“That is the normal range,” he said.
This season, Moyer said the state Department of Health has dispersed 721,000 childhood vaccines for those younger than 18 to health providers across the state.
Meanwhile, Jeffers said the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is making sure uninsured families have access to vaccinations. In October, 1,000 doses of childhood vaccines were donated from Sanofi Pasteur, she said.
“We’re spreading those throughout the community to school-based clinics, pediatricians, pharmacies and faith-based partners,” Jeffers said.
Having those doses have allowed the department to mobilize two public flu shot clinics for children 6 months to 18, and uninsured adults 18 to 64.
The county department encourages everyone to get a flu shot.
“The vaccination is reformulated for each season,” Jeffers said. “Past flu shots don’t mean anything. It’s something you have to update annually. Early is best, but it’s not too late to get a flu shot at any point in the season.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a recent study that, with this season’s flu vaccine, people who get a flu shot are 62 percent less likely to get flu-like symptoms.
“This translates into a couple of things,” said Nigel Turner, director of the communicable disease division at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “With the protection of the flu shot, you may not get sick, and if you do get sick, your symptoms will likely be less severe.”
This year’s vaccine includes protection against two new viruses that are different from last season’s flu vaccine, according to a news release from the county health department.
Dr. David Chen, the vice president of medical affairs at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, said MultiCare Health System has had more than 100 patients test positive for flu during the past month. Compared with last year’s flu season, Chen said MultiCare is experiencing about three times the number of cases of flu. Not all of those cases are being admitted to the hospital.
Chen, Jeffers and Moyer all advise the No. 1 precaution people can practice is good hygiene and staying clear of people when they are sick.
“If people are sick, they should be staying home,” Chen said. “If you’re well, try to avoid being around people who are sick.”
Chen also encourages people to drink lots of fluids and take vitamin D, and to have direct sun exposure to boost their immune system.
The MultiCare Immunization Clinic at the South Hill Mall is open from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 3500 S. Meridian. Appointments are not necessary. For more information, call 253-697-1426. For more information about the flu, to download a FAQ regarding a flu shot, or to find free and low-cost flu shot providers, visit www.tpchd.org/flu.Reporter Andrew Fickes can be reached at 253-552-7001 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @herald_andrew.