Three people died from the flu last week in Pierce County, and experts say this might be Washington’s worst season in years.
“The state epidemiologist has identified that we’re now at an epidemic level in the state,” said Edie Jeffers, a spokeswoman for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
In addition to the Pierce County deaths, at least eight other flu-related fatalities have been reported in Washington.
In the past week, hospitalizations have increased dramatically in Pierce and Thurston counties and throughout the state.
“It is pretty severe,” said Dr. Preeti Kondal, an infectious disease physician at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia. “These are the highest numbers I’ve seen, close to the H1N1 pandemic (in 2009).”
The epidemic designation comes well before the typical peak of the flu season in February or March.
In reaching the decision to declare an epidemic, the state looks at positive influenza tests and hospital admissions, both of which were up in the past week in Pierce and Thurston counties.
The three people who died last week in Pierce County followed a death Dec. 19, according to the Health Department.
The latest patients were between 60 and 90 years old and had underlying health conditions that increased the risk of death from influenza.
“It’s most severe on the elderly,” Jeffers said.
The deaths might be just a percentage of total fatalities. More people probably die of flu-related deaths than are reported to the Health Department, Jeffers said.
Last week, 35 people were hospitalized with the flu in Pierce County, compared with 12 the previous week and seven the week before that, according to Health Department statistics.
There were about 225 positive tests for influenza last week compared with 150 the week before. The lab at Tacoma General Hospital ran 162 flu tests last week, and 31 percent came back positive.
Tacoma General’s emergency department was full of patients Wednesday morning. One of them was Scott McRae, 69, of Gig Harbor. He was brought in by ambulance from an urgent care facility after becoming disoriented.
“I hardly knew where I was,” McRae said.
He came down with flu-like symptoms Dec. 26. Though he tested negative for the flu at Tacoma General, he was still admitted.
Nurse Shannonn Costin gave McRae an IV with antibiotics.
“We’re very full, very busy,” Costin said. “But we’ve been getting to everyone, and everyone’s been getting pretty good care.”
Flu patients admitted to St. Peter have doubled in the past week, spokesman Chris Thomas said.
For the week ending Dec. 31, the hospital’s emergency department had 215 people reporting flu-like symptoms as their chief complaint, up from 151 the week before, Thomas said.
That number represents 20.6 percent of the patients seen in the emergency department. Of those, 85 tested positive for the flu, and 33 were admitted to the hospital,
St. Peter is at or near capacity, Thomas said. About 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to staff members, the hospital went on what’s known as “divert,” which means incoming non-critical patients were sent to other hospitals.
The flu season is the worst Kondal has seen in her four years at St. Peter.
“People are getting sicker,” she said.
Patients span age groups.
“The youngest we had was 2 months,” she said.
Those being admitted are mostly the young and the elderly.
Admissions for flu have also jumped in the last two weeks at Capital Medical Center in Olympia.
The hospital began seeing numbers climb in early December, said Karen Pitman, who is certified in infection prevention. At the time, only 15 percent of people reporting flu-like symptoms tested positive.
Last week the number testing positive at Capital Medical Center was 21 percent, but doctors are not ordering as many tests, a typical move when numbers increase and the disease is more readily identified, Pitman said.
“The takeaway is, get vaccinated,” Kondal said. “That’s what saves lives.”
This year’s vaccine is a good match for the virus in circulation, she said.
It’s not too late to get a flu shot.
“That is your best protection against the flu and will make the illness less serious if you do get sick,” Jeffers said.
Slowing the spread of flu helps protect those most vulnerable to the ailment: the young, the elderly, and those whose immunity and and health are compromised.
Practicing good hygiene is a good idea all times of the year but especially during flu season, Jeffers said.
“Proper hand washing is critical to protecting yourself and others,” she said.
Once someone is infected, it might take seven to 10 days to rid the body of the flu virus. People can remain infectious up to seven days after becoming sick, according the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fever (but not in all patients).
Muscle and joint aches.
Sore throat and cough.
How to stop the spread
Wash hands with soap and water every time you use a bathroom.
Avoid touching face with hands.
Sneeze and cough into your elbow, not your hands.
If sick, stay home.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention