Georgia’s flu season appears to be peaking, but it’s not too late to have a flu shot.
Plenty of vaccine remains available, and health officials say it’s better to be safe than sorry – especially when hospitals and emergency rooms remain at or near capacity with the rise in flu cases. Flu typically is marked by a sudden onset of symptoms – unlike a common cold – and spike in fever.
Hayla Folden of District 4 Public Health said many people skip flu shots because they are afraid of contracting the virus from them.
“We need to be clear that if you’re getting the shot, you’re getting the inactivated virus, so you’re not going to get the flu from the flu shot,” she said. “However, it will not 100 percent prevent you from getting the flu. The main goal is to prevent you from getting so sick you end up hospitalized or dead.”
Five flu-related deaths have been reported in Georgia since the end of September. More than 100 people in metro Atlanta were hospitalized with influenza-like illness in the first week of 2019, and the level of flu activity in Georgia has been classified as “high” for four consecutive weeks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Weekly Influenza report for Jan. 5.
The report also notes the number of confirmed Georgia flu cases remains above the regional average. Of the five confirmed deaths, one occurred in the 5-17 age range, one in the 50-64 age range and the other three in the 65-older range. No deaths have been reported in Coweta County.
Health care providers reported an uptick in flu cases among older patients back in December, and the number of patients ages 65-older accounts for nearly half of Georgia flu hospitalizations since October.
Influenza A is the prevalent virus, accounting for 1,123 of 1,252 positive flu tests in Georgia so far this flu season. Of the 160 patients who tested positive in the first week of 2019, 155 have Influenza A.
Folden said the predominant strain in Georgia is H3N2 – the same as last year’s flu season, during which a Coweta County teenager’s death was attributed to the flu – and that’s another good reason to have a flu shot, she said.
“We’re seeing mostly H1N1 in the rest of the the nation, so there’s always a chance we could start seeing H1N1 here,” Folden said, cautioning that if a second strain catches on here, it essentially means a second flu season.
“The reason that we want people to have the flu vaccine is because it protects against both strains,” Folden said.
Outpatient providers have reported treating nearly 50,000 Georgians for flu-like illness since the end of September, with nearly 30,000 of those cases occurring in children ages 17 and younger.
Piedmont Newnan Hospital has reported an increase in patients with flu-like symptoms and those testing positive for the flu since Dec. 1, in both its emergency room and admission cases. The influx in patients has caused the hospital to remain near or at capacity most days, officials said.
Since Jan. 1, nearly 12 percent of the 60 patients tested for the flu at Piedmont Newnan Hospital were positive for Influenza A. Hospital officials said they have not seen any Influenza B this year, but they are anticipating an increase in flu patients this month with the way statistics currently are tracking.
Piedmont Newnan infectious disease specialist Neha Shah, M.D said although it’s best to get vaccinated before the peak of flu season because it takes about two weeks for the immune system to fully respond and provide protection, having a flu shot later than October can still be beneficial. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends unvaccinated people can benefit from the vaccine as long as flu viruses are circulating.
Shah said everyone over six months old should have a flu vaccine annually.
“A seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to help protect against the flu,” Shah said. “Every flu season is different, and influenza infection can affect people differently. Vaccination has been shown to have many benefits, including reducing the risk of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and even the risk of flu-related death in children.”
Having a flu shot also helps protect those who are too young or ill to be vaccinated, through “herd immunity.”
“Even if you are healthy, it is important to get vaccinated – especially if you have any medical conditions, are pregnant, or are around people that can’t get vaccinated,” Shah said. “More people having immunity stops or slows the spread of infection and helps decrease the chance of someone who is not immune coming into contact with an infectious person.”
Flu shots are available at health departments, doctor’s offices, urgent care locations and walk-in clinics at pharmacies, as well as at some supermarkets.
A few simple precautions can go a long way toward helping prevent the spread of the flu, Folden said.
“If you have the flu or think you have it, don’t go out and spread it around in public,” Folden said. “And get vaccinated if you haven’t already.”
How can you help prevent flu from spreading?
- Stay home if you’re sick. Before returning to school or work, flu sufferers should be free of fever – without the use of a fever reducer – for at least 24 hours.
- If your doctor prescribes antivirals, take them.
- If you’re not sick, stay away from people who are.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently to help guard against the flu. If soap and water are not accessible, use alcohol-based sanitizing gels.
- Cover the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing. Use a tissue when possible, or cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm.
- Avoid touching your face to prevent germs from getting into your body through mucous membranes of the nose, mouth or eyes.
(Source: Georgia Department of Public Health)
When is the flu an emergency?
Caregivers should seek medical care immediately if the sick person experiences:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Purple or blue discoloration of the lips
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
(Source: Georgia Department of Public Health)