“The state and the county are seeing an uptick in flu,” said Dr. Aaron Billin of Powell Valley Healthcare, who also serves as Park County’s health officer. “We’re not seeing the severity they’re seeing in other states, but it may get worse before it gets better.”
A few people have been hospitalized for the flu, both at Powell Valley Hospital and at West Park Hospital in Cody, Billin said.
He said there have been no flu-related deaths in Park County.
Across the country, “every week, someone’s dying of the flu,” Billin said. “The average person can’t help but wonder, ‘Is it going to be that bad here?’ We sure hope not.”
“We continue to see widespread influenza across the state,” said Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health. “We do not know if we have yet reached the peak of activity.”
What is happening in Wyoming is consistent with what’s been going on in other parts of the country, Deti said.
Until recently, Deti said, the H3N2 influenza virus, an “A” type virus, has been dominant. “But we are seeing a shift in Wyoming to some ‘B’ viruses,” she said.
A bad flu season
“Historically, seasons with high levels of H3N2 have been associated with more severe influenza illnesses with high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths,” Deti said. “We know we have had deaths in Wyoming this season, but do not have a count.”
The department is not aware of any flu-related deaths of children in the state, she said.
Nationally, 53 children have died of the flu so far this season, according to Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control.
Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC Influenza Division, said in a press conference Friday that every state but Oregon reported widespread flu activity for the past three weeks. That “is something we hadn’t seen since we have been collecting these data,” he said.
Jernigan expressed hope that Oregon’s lower flu activity was an indicator that the rest of the West the might follow soon.
According to the CDC, 14,676 people nationwide have been hospitalized with influenza since the flu season began in October.
CDC data pegged the national rate of laboratory-confirmed influenza hospitalizations at a rate of 51.4 per 100,000 people during the last week in January. That is higher than at the same point in any of the previous seven flu seasons.
The 2014-15 flu season had the highest influenza hospitalization rate, peaking at a rate of 64.2 per 100,000 in April 2015.
Billin said influenza tends to move from the East to the West, but the rural nature of the West — and particularly of Wyoming — tends to lessen its impact to some degree.
“Our remote and rural environment is somewhat protective for us,” he said. “We don’t have any huge population centers.”
Bill Crampton, Park County Public Health nurse supervisor, said it’s difficult to quantify the number of flu cases in Park County, since many people aren’t tested. Generally, health care providers report influenza-like symptoms, which include a fever of 100 degrees or greater and a cough or sore throat, but often don’t find it necessary to perform a test to send in to the Wyoming Department of Health.
“Everybody in town seems like they have those symptoms, but we don’t have a great deal of information on positive flu tests,” Crampton said.
However, the numbers in the reports the county does receive have been steadily climbing, he said. In the last week of December, 21 positive tests were reported; by this week, that number had grown to 32.
Billin said it’s still not too late to get a flu shot. However, it’s important to remember that it takes about two weeks after getting a shot for your body to build up immunity.
“I do hear from people all the time who say, ‘I got a flu shot and it gave me the flu,’” he said.
Billin said that’s usually due to one of three scenarios:
• Someone contracts the flu before their body builds up enough immunity. “They need to be vaccinated before they are exposed to the flu,” he said.
• “When people get the flu vaccine, they might get body aches and a fever and think it’s the flu,” he said. “It’s not. It’s our immune system working. They don’t know how bad the flu really is.”
• The World Health Organization might have misjudged what type of flu will be around. The organization tracks the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere to determine which strains to include in the annual vaccine in the Northern Hemisphere. Sometimes they get it wrong, or a virus mutates. That can make the vaccination less effective — but it’s still helpful, Billin said.
“It is possible to be vaccinated and still get sick; it’s not perfect, but it sure helps,” Billins said. “Your flu vaccine can protect you against viruses not in the vaccine. You might not get as sick, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.”
Among people who get vaccinated, there is a 40-60 percent reduction in flu illness, he said.
Billin said health officials won’t really know how well this year’s vaccination worked until the flu season is over and the data can be fully analyzed.
Crampton said this year’s flu vaccination in the United States is the same as the one given in Australia. In Australia, it had a 10 percent success rate; in the U.S., it appears to be 25-30 percent successful, Crampton said.
Other than getting vaccinated, the best way to prevent the spread of the flu is to wash your hands frequently, and if you’re ill, stay home and avoid cooking for others.
“Don’t even sleep in the same bed if you’re sick,” he said.
Flu hits local schools
In recent weeks, illnesses have forced many local students to stay home from school. At Parkside Elementary, more than 21 percent of students missed school on Jan. 26, according to Park County School District No. 1 nursing staff. At the middle school, the highest number of students out for illness was 13 percent of the student population.
Schools have seen a mixture of influenza A and B, strep throat, colds and gastroenteritis. To help prevent the spread of germs during periods of illness, schools are using a more powerful disinfectant called Oxivir that works in 60 seconds. Custodians are cleaning all high-touch areas — such as desktops, doorknobs and drinking fountains — daily.
Powell school nurses recommend the following prevention tips:
• Wash your hands with soap and water frequently and well. Use hand sanitizer when water is not available.
• Clean frequently touched areas with antiseptic wipes (like Clorox) often: doorknobs, phones, stair rails, faucets, handles, keyboards, etc.
• Stay away from people who are ill.
• Drink lots of water, eat healthy and exercise to keep your immune system as strong as possible.
If you are sick, minimize the spread to others by:
• Covering your mouth in the crook of your arm when you cough. If you cough into your hands, wash them immediately after.
• Washing your hands after blowing your nose.
• Washing your hands with soap and water frequently and well. Use hand sanitizer when water is not available.
• Staying home until you’ve been fever-free without over-the-counter medicine for 24 hours.
• Trying to stay in one area in your home that can be cleaned easily and minimize spreading germs to family members.
Send your child to school if …
• They have a runny nose or just a little cough, but no other symptoms.
• They haven’t taken any fever-reducing medicine for 24 hours, and haven’t had a fever during the time.
• They haven’t thrown up or had any diarrhea for 24 hours.
Keep your child at home if …
• They have a temperature higher than 100 degrees even after taking medicine.
• They’re throwing up or have diarrhea.
• Their eyes are pink and crusty.
Call the doctor if…
• Your child has a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees for more than two days.
• They have been throwing up or have diarrhea for more than two days.
• They’ve had the sniffles for more than a week, and they aren’t getting better.
• They still have asthma symptoms after using asthma medicine.
• Call 911 if the child has asthma and is having trouble breathing after using their inhaler.