Flu back in full blast in Lake County
Dr. Mark Drexler holds a vial of this year's flu vaccine at the Lake County Health Department's North Shore Health Center in Highland Park Friday. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 18, 2013 8:16AM
Winter-like weather may be lagging but the seasonal flu is back in full blast, arriving sooner and with more severity than usual.
Health officials report influenza-like illnesses have been circulating with a vengeance around Lake County and most of Illinois in recent weeks.
“We are seeing widespread activity much earlier than usual and an elevated number of cases of influenza,” compared with previous years, said Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The state doesn’t keep track of the incidence of influenza, because it is not a reportable disease. However, the agency monitors the data reported by doctors’ offices, emergency departments and nursing homes that report acute illness, as well as schools that report absenteeism rates, to determine prevalence levels.
By the first week of January, influenza had affected at least half the regions of 47 U.S. states. Illinois, one of the hardest-hit states, has endured widespread influenza activity since Dec. 9.
Last Friday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the nationwide flu outbreak had reached epidemic proportions.
The virus shows no signs of up letting up locally. In Lake County, this flu season, six people have been admitted to intensive care units, and more than 230 tested positive for the virus, the county health department reported Friday.
Seven long-term care facilities have had influenza outbreaks, two of which occurred in the past two weeks.
At this time last year, the county health department recorded one positive flu test and one ICU hospitalization.
“We are seeing about 10 cases a day of flu in the ER,” said Dr. Jack Franaszek, medical director of the Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital emergency department.
“It’s certainly a bad season so far,” said Katherine Kirley, a family medicine specialist with NorthShore University HealthSystem in Highland Park.
One explanation for the uptick in cases relates to this year’s predominant flu strand, H3N2, which has been associated with more severe symptoms, explained Lake County Health Department Epidemiologist Victor Plotkin.
Early vaccination is another factor. Seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October and continue into May, but typically reaches its peak in January and February. Some people may have been waiting until January to get the flu shot, speculated Lynn Skelton, infection prevention manager for Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington.
Now, she said, “it’s definitely taking people off guard.”
A spike in absenteeism at schools in December hinted that the flu bug was back. By January, respiratory illnesses forced over a dozen Chicago-area hospitals to temporarily divert ambulances to other facilities due to overcrowded emergency rooms.
At the end of December, NorthShore’s medical group in Highland Park had an outpatient rate for influenza-like illness that reached more than 9 percent, Kirley reported. In past years the rate hovered around 4 percent.
Kirley said that most patients seeking ambulatory and outpatient services for influenza are not elderly but older children and young adults.
Unless flu symptoms worsen, however, most healthy adults don’t need to be seen by an emergency room physician. Kirley said encourages staying home from work and recovering with ibuprofen.
At NLFH, about 6 percent of the patients who come to the ER have the flu, Franaszek said.
Though flu is a main culprit for the rise in doctor visits, medical professionals say other viruses causing respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms are also causing people to fall ill.
“During the winter season a number of viruses are circulating around,” Plotkin explained.
But the “stomach flu” – a misnomer used to described illnesses that cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – is not to be confused with influenza. Rather the flu is a viral respiratory infection that mimics symptoms of the common cold with increased severity. A high fever, headache, muscle aches and extreme fatigue are also signs.
Annual vaccination is widely recognized as the best protection against the flu. Healthy hygiene, such as frequent hand washing and covering a cough, are also important.
The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older, especially people with underlying medical conditions, pregnant women and seniors over 65.
Medical professionals agree it’s not too late to get the flu shot to curb the virus’ spread since the end date of flu season is anybody’s guess.
“Unfortunately we only think of the flu once the season starts,” Plotkin said. “We need to remember we have good mechanisms in place to recognize the flu.”
With immunization, he added, “we protect not just ourselves but people around us.”
Linda Blaser, Susan Frick Carlman and Kimberly Fornek contributed to this report.