Surprise: The flu is early this year
CAPITAL REGION The winter flu season is off to an early start in the Capital Region, as it is across the state and around the nation.
The state Health Department saw confirmed flu cases in Schenectady, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties during the week ending Nov. 24, the most recent information available.
Montgomery and Albany counties previously had early reports of flu cases but none that week. Fulton and Schoharie counties hadn’t had any flu reports as of Nov. 24.
Across the state, the flu is categorized by the Health Department as “widespread.”
Normally, flu cases don’t start to rise until January, and they peak in late winter. Whether the early start portends an overall worse season is unclear.
Statewide, the Health Department confirmed flu cases in 34 counties that week. There were 500 cases confirmed by laboratory testing, up 65 percent from the week before. Flu-related hospitalizations were also up.
Influenza can be deadly, causing about 36,000 deaths per year nationally, mostly among the elderly — making it a major public health issue.
Schenectady County has had one confirmed case so far, said county spokesman Joe McQueen, though he said it’s likely there were many more cases that have not been confirmed by lab testing.
Public health officials at all levels of government are in unison in emphasizing that people should get a flu shot.
“We’re really emphasizing to people that it’s not too late to get vaccinated,” McQueen said.
Saratoga County has had “sporadic cases coming through for the last few weeks,” said Gail McNicholas, communicable disease nurse for the county Public Health Nurses. “It’s earlier than in the past few years.”
“Get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated,” said Saratoga County Public Health Director Karen Levison.
Nationally, the flu season has gotten off to its earliest start in nearly a decade.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged people to get a flu shot to minimize the impact of the potentially deadly disease’s spread.
Frieden said a flu shot is the best tool available to stop the spread of the disease, along with covering your mouth when coughing and washing your hands frequently.
Nationally, only about 35 percent of adults and 40 percent of children have been vaccinated so far this season, according to the CDCP.
“This is the earliest regular flu season we’ve seen in nearly a decade,” Frieden told the Associated Press Monday. “That suggests this could be a bad flu year.”
The current vaccine, which has been prepared in advance, seems well-matched for the flu strains being seen, he said.
Nationally, the number of suspected flu cases has jumped in five Southern states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. The dominant flu type is the same as the one associated with the flu season of 2003-04, which is the last year the season started so early.
A yearly flu vaccine is generally recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older. It usually takes about two weeks for the body’s immune response to fully kick in afterward.
Especially at risk are very young children and adults older than age 65. People with chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease are also at higher risk.
Many drugstores and medical offices offer flu shots. Schenectady County’s website includes a link, under the public health tab, to a national database for finding local providers by ZIP code.