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Centre County Reports as Many as 300 Cases, Flu Vaccine Still Urged

by on January 19, 2013 8:20 AM

Flu activity in the state is now considered widespread by the Pa. Department of Health, with activity in all regions and 270 to 390 cases in Centre County alone. Health care officials say the season peaked early this year and the number of reported illness is the highest it's been since 2009's pandemic.

Local hospitals and health care entities are implementing a variety of preventive measures, and across the board are recommending vaccination as the best means of protection.

As of Friday, Centre County's number of reported cases was 301 for the period of Oct. 2,2012 through Jan. 5., according to the department of health.

Mount Nittany Medical Center first noted an abrupt increase in cases beginning the week of Dec. 17, 2012, and that high level of activity has continued. Current data suggests that activity has not yet peaked, according to a press release by Mount Nittany Health.

“The number of cases more than doubled between the weeks of Dec. 17 and 26,” said Marlene Stetson, registered nurse and infection control coordinator at Mount Nittany Medical Center. “We had almost a 50 percent increase from Dec. 17 to Dec. 26.”

Most of the lab-confirmed cases of influenza at the medical center have been under the age of 30, and about half of those are under 10 years old. Ten percent of patients who tested positive for influenza have required inpatient care, Stetson said.

Stetson said for the week of Dec. 31, 2012 to Jan. 6, the medical center documented 41 lab-confirmed cases of influenza. However, she said, this number should be viewed with caution.

“It really doesn't represent the whole picture,” Stetson said. “It's really just a fraction.”

The exact number of cases isn't known for a variety of reasons, she said. Simply, some people are never tested in the first place, and others receive a false result, meaning they have the flu but test negative.

“(That number) just gives us an indicator,” Stetson said.

The medical center has taken a “firm stance” on flu prevention by requiring health care workers to either get a flu shot or wear a mask within six feet of patients, Stetson said. So far 87 percent of Mount Nittany health care workers have been vaccinated, and that number is expected to grow, she said.

Stetson warns that people can still get the flu even if they have received the vaccination, which is why it's important to continuously practice preventative measures, such as washing hands and covering coughs.

“We will still see breakthrough illness,” she said.

However, for those who do get the flu after receiving the vaccination may have lessened severity and duration of the illness, Stetson said.

“There's still value in being vaccinated,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention name H3N2 as the primary strain of flu this year, with “B viruses” coming in second, Stetson said.

Flu peaks in Central Pennsylvania between mid-January and early February, Stetson said, stressing that it is not too late to get the flu shot. Vaccines are still available, and remain the best preventative measure against the flu, she said.

“We potentially have a very long season ahead of us,” she said.

The CDC recommends all people aged 6 months and older receive the vaccine. High-risk patients especially are advised to be vaccinated, which includes pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, Stetson said.

The vaccine is available through Mount Nittany Physician Group by appointment, she said.

Flu symptoms, unlike colds, usually include very high fever (104 degrees), chills, and body aches, said Dr. Evan Bell, infectious disease specialist at Mount Nittany Physician Group.

Bell said the best way to prevent the spread of influenza is to stay home.

“Don’t go to work, and don’t go to school,” he said. “It’s a contagious disease.”

While it is generally advised to stay home when sick, Stetson said there are certain circumstances in which ill people should go to the doctor or hospital. Each case should be handled individually, and this decision depends on the regular health of the person, she said.

As a general rule, those who are unable to stay hydrated, have breathing difficulties or have a fever that lasts longer than usual should see their physician, she said.

Also, those with long-term or underlying medical conditions should see their doctor if they have the flu, Stetson said.

Geisinger Health System reported on Friday that it has hospitalized 150 to 200 patients for flu.

“We're seeing a lot of flu,” said Dr. Raymond Nungesser, family practice physician at Geisinger Medical Center in Lewistown.

Nungesser said the cases at Geisinger are measured only by viral cultures, so not all cases are accounted for.

“(It's the) tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Nungesser said there is still time to get vaccinated, and urges everyone to do so.

“We're far from our peak,” he said, adding that the flu will most likely be around for the next several weeks.

“We'll still be hearing about this,” he said. “If they haven't gotten it (the shot) they need to get it today. If not today, then yesterday.”

Addressing common misconceptions about the vaccine, Nungesser said the flu shot does not cause the flu. At most it will give patients a sore arm, he said.

“It's made from a piece of the virus that causes the flu,” he said. “And that piece is dead.”

Nungesser said flu vaccines currently are available at all Geisinger clinics. People can also call their doctors to make an appointment, he said.

“(If they call) the answer should be: 'come right over',” he said.

Like Mount Nittany Health and Geisinger, Lewistown Hospital has “seen a dramatic increase in the number of positive tests for the flu over the last two weeks,” according to a press release by the hospital.

It is asking that those with flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough or runny nose refrain from visiting patients.

“The flu … is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses,” according to the release.

“The influenza virus usually enters the body through mucus membranes in the mouth, nose, or eyes. When a person with the flu coughs or sneezes, the virus then becomes airborne and can be inhaled by anyone nearby. You can also get the flu if you’ve touched a contaminated surface like a telephone or a doorknob and then touch your nose or mouth. Of course, the risk of infection is greater in highly populated areas like schools, buses, crowded urban settings and hospitals,” the release states.

According to Penn State Live, university health services will offer a flu vaccine clinic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Jan. 28 in room 205 at the student health center. Penn State students may schedule appointments by calling (814) 863-0774 or online at studentaffairs.psu.edu/health/myUHS. Walk-in appointments will be accepted based on vaccine availability.

For more information visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website at http://www.cdc.gov/flu. The PA Department of Health's weekly flu reports are updated on Tuesdays. For more information visit www.flufreepa.com.



Staff Writer at The Centre County Gazette
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