‘Smacked by the flu’: Communities, families offer glimpse into outbreak

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said influenza was widespread in 47 states. Yahoo News asked readers to share how the epidemic is affecting their families and communities. Here are excerpts from first-person accounts and local statistics gathered by people who are following the outbreak.

Nearly double the flu hospitalizations in Dane County, Wis.

MADISON, Wis.—Our family lives in an intentional community (aka a housing co-operative) with almost 30 other adults and several children. This means that even if we take the best precautions against the flu and other illnesses, we still have a large risk of being infected due to the large amount of contact we have with others.

My daughter and I were staying home to keep exposure to the flu at minimum, but one of the people in our house got it, then others got sick, and eventually we got sick. It was almost as bad as when I got swine flu back in 2009.

The worst part was knowing that it was coming and being unable to stop it.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal on Friday, nearly 1,300 residents have been to hospitals around Wisconsin for the flu this year. So many in Madison are getting sick this year; so far, the flu has landed 85 in the hospital in Dane County. Last year, only 46 were hospitalized for the flu through the whole season. Still, according to Dr. Jonathan Temte, a professor of family medicine at UW-Madison, "Compared to historic patterns of influenza, we have a moderate flu year."

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state has confirmed one pediatric death from flu.

— Rose Yahnke

Pennsylvania isn't immune to flu outbreak

YORK COUNTY, Pa.—Our region is getting smacked by the flu, too.

Usually, a "packed house" refers to the crowd size at a sporting event or concert, but this winter, it's a phrase used to describe your local hospital—and south-central Pennsylvania resembles other parts of the nation that are experiencing widespread flu outbreaks.

While neighboring Lancaster County is one of seven counties in the state to be listed as having the most severe flu problems, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, York County is in the next category, and York Hospital can attest to that. According to spokesman Barry Sparks, the hospital normally attends to more than 200 patients a day in the emergency department.

"On Monday, the York Hospital ED treated 264 patients," Sparks said in an email to the York Daily Record.

York Hospital reports there has been one flu-related death at the facility this season (22 statewide), and 101 confirmed cases of the flu at the hospital since Dec. 1. In addition, 90 percent of confirmed cases in Pennsylvania are H3N2—an influenza strain.

Health officials continue to urge individuals to receive flu shots. One of the places where they're available is at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, one of the most popular events statewide. According to Kait Gillis, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Health, 617 flu shots were issued at the Farm Show last year. Through Wednesday, that number was at 1,726 doses.

— George Hammond

Flu intensity in South Carolina mixed

SPARTANBURG, S.C.—My mother is 80, and she’s shown some minor symptoms of the flu, so I am watching her closely. She has not seen a doctor as of yet, and she refuses the flu shot each year for personal reasons. A couple of my younger cousins have had the flu since Christmas, but, overall, my family is relatively healthy.

I have only heard personally about mild cases of the flu here in Spartanburg County. According to the SCDHEC weekly flu update for the week ending Jan. 5, (and updated as of Thursday), South Carolina's incidences of influenza are reported as widespread, but the activity level in Regions 1 and 2, (the upstate, where we are) is at 1.75 percent, still below South Carolina’s baseline of 2.05 percent.

South Carolina reported in at 2.12 percent of influenza-like illnesses (ILI), not much more than this year's baseline of 2.05 percent but higher than last year's percentage of .59 percent during this same time frame.

Currently, South Carolina is reporting 22 flu deaths since Sept. 30, and three flu deaths from Jan. 1 through Thursday. There was only one death during the entire previous flu season.

— Freida Thomas

Influenza on the rise in Polk County, Ga.

CEDARTOWN, Ga.—This year, local hospitals, including Cedartown's Polk Medical Center, said they began seeing cases of the flu as early as October.

A hospital employee couldn't confirm to me the exact number of flu-related patients but said the number was high. The hospital is asking visitors to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of the flu and similar illnesses, or to avoid visiting the hospital altogether if possible.

Statewide, two adult Georgia residents have died from the flu, according to the state department of health.

— Regina Hurley

Minnesota confirms 27 flu-related deaths

MINNEAPOLIS—The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday confirmed 27 flu-related deaths this season so far. There have been more than 1,100 people hospitalized with flu-like symptoms statewide this season. The state’s health commissioner said it is causing a stressful situation for the health care system, and many hospitals have restricted visitors to help protect patients and staff.

KSTP quoted nurse practitioner Patsy Stinchfiled: "This flu season we're seeing more kids than we did during the H1N1 pandemic. In fact, it's the biggest influenza season that I can remember in my career here at Children's [Hospital]."

"We are clearly at a high level of influenza activity in the state," Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger said on Thursday. "But it's important to keep this year in perspective: What is occurring has happened before. This is what influenza looks like, this is what it can do. That's why we stress every year the importance of prevention measures."

Minnesota's fifth flu-related death was 14-year-old Carly Christenson of St. Louis Park, according to the AP.

— Marina Lumsden

Worries of the ‘killer flu’ along Oregon’s coast

FLORENCE, Ore.—The flu has hit the Oregon coast hard, based on anecdotal remarks from locals here who are either dealing with missing work or their kids missing school.

The numbers back it up, too: According to The Register-Guard in Eugene, an assisted living facility in Springfield has six confirmed cases, 55 others are reporting symptoms and 13 have been hospitalized.

One parent remarked while waiting for the school bus Friday morning that this year's flu season is "as bad as we've ever seen it. Both I and my husband and our three kids got it bad."

"We heard from our daughter up in Seattle who says local health officials warn that the influenza will likely continue into February," said William Parker, who lost his aunt to the flu a few years ago.

"[It] can kill you in a heartbeat,” Parker told me. “You must stay away from public places as much as possible and, of course, wash your hands and keep pumping yourself with lots of liquids, while taking needed vitamin C and other potions that you may have to ward off this killer flu."

— Dave Masko

California’s flu outbreak not as severe; Google Flu Trends tracks outbreaks

SAN FRANCISCO—So far the Bay Area has not seen an outbreak of influenza enough to make headline news... knock on wood (and then wash your hands). However, the height of flu season is still weeks away.

In the Bay Area, CVS and Walgreens are displaying their "Get Flu Shots Here" banners, as prevention is the best course of action. This year's vaccination is said to be widely available and a perfect match to protect against an especially virulent strain. Walk-ins are accepted, so my family and I are on our way in the morning. I'll pick up some extra hand sanitizers and we'll each have one for use after a bus ride, typing on office keyboards, handling phones at work, handling bills and coins.

Out here in the land of high-tech innovation, it's no surprise to hear that there's an app for flu outbreak detection as well. Google Flu Trends is said to be a week or so ahead of the Centers for Disease Control in noticing an outbreak by monitoring search numbers on related topics: how to lower a fever, what to do about body aches and pains, flu-like symptoms, or messages sent on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to tell friends that you're feeling ill. The graph is showing San Francisco on higher alert than it has been in six years, but nowhere near the intense levels reported in dozens of cities.

I registered at FluNearYou. It's a doctor-led community-centric tracker of ILI (influenza-like illnesses) of 40,000 Americans, with more registering every day. Anyone can register to join into this simple, weekly, two question yes-or-no report that helps Americans learn more about seasonal flu and pandemic flu geographical patterns.

— Laurie Jo Miller Farr

Flu in Midland/Odessa, Texas, area still manageable

MIDLAND, Texas—It's a bad flu season, even in Texas. Known for its mild winters that are typically dry, West Texas and its Permian Basin region are not thought of as influenza hot spots. Unfortunately for residents of my hometown, the Midland Reporter-Telegram confirmed on Dec. 4 that the current flu season was being rougher on Midland than usual, with 52 patients having visited the emergency room with flu-like symptoms in the past two weeks. While people had been hospitalized for the flu as of Dec. 4, there had been no confirmed deaths.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported on Jan. 9 that flu activity in Texas was classified as "widespread" and that the intensity was classified as "intense," meaning that relatively many flu patients were seeking professional care. Unfortunately, this indicates that Midland's flu season may get worse, particularly as people continue flocking to Midland and Odessa in search of jobs. If many unemployed people seeking oil jobs in the region are arriving without having received flu vaccines, the risk of a worsening flu season increases.

The Texas DSHS surveillance map indicates that influenza activity has been confirmed in both Midland and Ector counties, but shows that the situation is not as serious as in Texas' larger cities, such as Austin or El Paso.

— Calvin Wolf