“We are seeing an influx locally and across the state for tested and proven cases of influenza at emergency rooms and doctors’ offices,” Barry Honeycutt, director of operations for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, said Friday afternoon.
The department’s own medical director had gone home sick earlier in the day, although it wasn’t known if he tested positive for the flu. But leaving to limit the potential exposure of coworkers is one of the very steps he routinely advises the public to take during flu season.
Honeycutt said flu can strike anytime throughout the year, but most cases occur between October and April.
This flu season, the number of flu cases, or flu-like illnesses, began to rise last month — which is earlier than usual.
And one strain of the flu is striking especially hard.
“Type A, H3N2 seems to be the significant culprit,” Honeycutt said. “In testing, it seems more dominant. It is causing more hospitalization than other strains.”
The H3N2 strain is more dangerous to patients over 65, under 2 and to those of any age deemed high-risk due to other health issues, such as chronic diseases.
This year’s vaccine is 32 percent effective against the H3N2 strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Honeycutt said.
“But the vaccine covers a lot more than just the H3N2 strain,” Honeycutt said. “And 32 percent is better than no protection. The vaccine is available at doctors’ offices and many retail locations.”
On Friday, the Tennessee Department of Health issued a statement noting increased reports of seasonal influenza and other respiratory illnesses across the state. TDH offered the following tips on ways to slow the spread of flu.
• The CDC and TDH recommend a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. It is not too late to benefit from a flu shot this season and to assure you are protecting those around you.
• People can be sick with the flu and transmit it up to 24 hours before they feel ill.
• Avoid contact with sick people.
• People who are sick should stay home for at least 24 hours after symptoms have resolved to protect others and prevent spreading the disease. This should include avoiding going to work, school and other public places while ill and limiting visits to people in nursing homes or hospitals.
• If you or others in your household are sick — especially small children — be particularly careful when considering visits to friends or loved ones in hospitals, long-term care facilities and other places where sick and vulnerable people live or receive care. Consider calls or “virtual” visits with technology such as video chats to prevent the spread of germs in such settings and respect any limits on visitation policies that facilities may be compelled to implement during flu season.
• To protect your family and others, always use “respiratory etiquette,” such as coughing into your elbow or a tissue rather than your hands and wash hands frequently with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand rub. Routine cleaning and disinfection in the home and workplace are also important to reduce flu risks.
• Some groups of people such as infants, the elderly and those with certain medical conditions are at highest risk of getting severe complications from the flu. People in these groups should consult a health care provider if they suspect infection with the flu and should begin antiviral medications if recommended by their provider as soon as possible.
• Few people with the flu or other respiratory illnesses need to go to an emergency room.
• People who are not severely ill should call their health care provider first to talk about whether they need to be seen and, if so, where would be most appropriate place to go.