Flu season blowing in early, cases up

Posted: January 4, 2013

The Winchester Star

Public Health Nurse Kim Miller gives a flu shot to medical interpreter Grace Asencio at the Frederick/Winchester Health Department. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — Peak flu season is hitting the area earlier this year than last, according to a local health expert.

Charles Devine, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, said that while he couldn’t provide a specific number of cases in the area — due to several factors, including how the disease is reported — the LFHD has been experiencing widespread flu activity for the past three weeks.

He added that approximately 7 percent of emergency-room visits in the area have been due to flu-like symptoms.

The Lord Fairfax Health District includes Winchester and Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.

“We certainly are seeing an increase in the number of cases right now,” Devine said. “The increase started about two weeks ago locally ... but it’s within the range of what we expect. The situation this year is different than last year in that we’re seeing the peak rise earlier this year.”

He added that the last peak flu season occurred in February and lasted until early March.

“Unfortunately, it’s really not possible to predict the severity of any particular flu season,” Devine said. “It’s also not possible to know when the activity level will rise.”

Devine said that health district staff have administered about 3,400 vaccinations during the current flu season. He said the number is down about 10 percent from last year, which he attributed to an increased availability of flu shots at pharmacies and other stores.

Devine said this flu season hasn’t been as severe as the ones in 2007-2008 and 2009-2010.

According to Carol Weare, a spokesperson for Valley Health, the Winchester Medical Center’s Infection Control Department — which monitors the hospital’s emergency department and inpatients — has reported 196 positive flu cases since November.

WMC’s Microbiology Department, which tests samples from outpatients at the hospital’s Diagnostic Center and in certain physician offices that send tests to WMC for processing, there were 252 positive flu tests from Dec. 23-29.

Valley Health operates several hospitals, Urgent Care facilities and other health care offices in the region.

The flu is a contagious viral illness that infects the nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms can include fever and chills, coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue and possible vomiting or diarrhea, according to Valley Health.

“The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year,” according to information from Valley Health published in the Star in November. “About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop that protect against influenza virus infection. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the three influenza viruses that research suggests will be most common each year.”

Flu shots are available at Valley Health’s Urgent Care facility, located at 607 E. Jubal Early Drive, and at certain pharmacies.

Additional information on the flu is available online at either valleyhealthlink.com/healthlibrary or flu.gov.

— Contact Matt Armstrong at marmstrong@winchesterstar.com