More than half of all flu cases reported this season are from last week

Dec. 1—The number of reported influenza cases in Maine doubled over the course of last week, according to the latest data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 859 new flu cases reported in Maine for the week ending Saturday, which accounts for more than half of all reported flu cases since the season began in early October, according to the Maine CDC's weekly flu surveillance report published Tuesday.

"Influenza activity often increases rapidly, eventually hitting a peak and then declines. Maine is likely experiencing the beginning of that cycle," Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell said in an email.

The Maine CDC has recorded 1,652 cases since the season began nearly eight weeks ago. Seventeen people were hospitalized last week, bringing the total number of flu-associated hospitalizations this season to 39. One person has died from flu- and pneumonia-associated causes so far this season.

Nationwide, the federal CDC estimates that as of Nov. 19, there have been at least 6.2 million infections, 53,000 hospitalizations and nearly 3,000 flu-associated deaths.

While the majority of illnesses reported in Maine so far this season are of people younger than 25, with the average age of all cases at 25 years old, experts from the Maine CDC said that does not necessarily mean that young people are driving cases.

"School-aged children may be more likely to receive medical care and be tested for influenza and other respiratory viruses than those in other age groups," Farwell said in response to questions from the Sun Journal.

Not all flu cases are reported, either. As is the case with COVID, not all people who are infected with flu go to their doctor to get tested and so reported cases likely represent an undercount.

And, although seven of the 10 outbreaks reported this season are in K-12 schools, that probably does not explain the steep incline in cases recently, Farwell said.

Regardless of whether influenza circulating in schools helps explain the spread of flu activity in Maine, schools are still getting hit hard by flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, more commonly known as RSV. Where that's been most notable is in staffing levels, Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said Wednesday.

"We have now, I would say, on half a dozen occasions been on the bubble of whether or not we have to close a school," Langlais said.

"We have yet to have to do so," but there have been moments that have come close, he said, like a few weeks ago when he spent the whole day at a school helping out wherever he could because there were so many staff members absent.

"There's still these contingency plans in place for what do we do if we just don't have enough staff to go to school for the day, kind of like we used to have a year ago," Langlais said.

Auburn Superintendent Cornelia Brown said Wednesday evening that there was a flu outbreak at one of district's schools just before the Thanksgiving break. All outbreaks of flu-like illnesses in congregate settings such as schools or long-term care facilities must be reported to the Maine CDC; in a school setting that's defined as 15% or more absenteeism due to illness.

The outbreak at the Auburn school appears to be the only one at a K-12 school in Androscoggin County as of Nov. 26.

Anecdotally, Langlais said he's hearing more frequently that staff have to stay home because their children are sick, rather than being sick themselves.

Plus, there's still COVID. If a staff member tests positive, they still have to stay home for five days or until they test negative.

Respiratory illnesses are hitting other areas of school operations as well, Langlais said. Earlier this year, a flu-like illness circulated among employees of one of the district's bus contractors, causing transportation disruptions.

Students have had to stay home as well, but it hasn't gotten to the "level that is state-reportable" as an outbreak, Langlais said, "but things that are enough for us to catch notice and be thinking we might be close to having to report."

But without weekly pooled testing for COVID, like there was last year, or regular testing for the other viruses, it is difficult to say what might be causing absenteeism among students.

Langlais said school nurses are hyperaware of the symptoms associated with these viruses, especially RSV — which tends to affect children around 5 and younger the most severely.

"I do think that people are a bit more cautious," he said. "So if they're not feeling well, they're either finding ways to keep some space. We do see kids wear masks at times, even though it's not required. And I think that's more accepted generally than it might have been certainly before the pandemic, but even late last year," when masks weren't required, either.

"I do think that people are really mindful of symptoms in ways that they used to not be," Langlais said.