Flu back in full blast
Dr. Michael Unger gives a flu shot to Ron Branstrom, of Glenview, in his Northbrook office. The flu has been widespread and more severe this year, health officials say. I David Banks~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 19, 2013 12:25PM
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 suburban Cook 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.
“We’re seeing that it’s continuing to rise,” said Amy Poore, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Department of Public Health.
The number of influenza-associated hospitalizations in suburban Cook County has already surpassed the seasonal totals of the past two years.
Seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October and continue into May, but typically reaches its peak in January and February.
“This year, it is clearly going outside of those boundaries,” said Elisabeth Bacani, a public health nurse for the Village of Oak Park.
“It’s definitely taking people off guard,” added Lynn Skelton, infection prevention manager for Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington.
Since late August, the Cook County health department has recorded 90 flu cases at intensive care units. The same time last year only one person had been admitted for the flu. Last year’s flu season saw a total of 45 flu-related ICU cases.
Chicago, Evanston, Oak Park, Skokie and Stickney Township collect their own data on diseases and are not included in those figures. As of last week, Skokie reported two ICU admissions and Oak Park had three. Information for Evanston wasn’t immediately available Friday.
A spike in absenteeism at area schools in December hinted that the flu bug was back.
Early last month Todd Hall, a 400-student elementary school in Lincolnwood, recorded approximately 50 student absences due sickness.
To combat the flu in their village, Skokie Public Health nurses conducted home visits after a number of children stayed home sick.
“We wouldn’t typically do that,” said Skokie Health Department Director Catherine Counard, “but we wanted to be sure and identify (the flu) as soon as it arrived.”
She said results confirmed the school had an outbreak of the H3N2 virus, this year’s predominant flu strand.
More students than usual at Maine Township High School District 207 have also come down with the flu, though the number of cases is nothing “too dramatic,” said spokesman Dave Beery.
“The nurses are a little surprised they’re not seeing even more given how widespread the flu seems to be in the Chicago area and the country as a whole,” he said.
Respiratory illnesses forced more than a dozen Chicago-area hospitals to temporarily divert ambulances to other facilities due to overcrowded emergency rooms.
Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge saw its ER volume jump by 20 percent, according to Douglas Propp, chairman of the department of emergency medicine.
Though flu is a main culprit, medical professionals say other viruses causing respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms are also causing people to fall ill.
“We’re seeing more than the typical, classic influenza,” Propp confirmed.
But the “stomach flu” – a misnomer used to described illnesses that cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – is not 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.
“The most predictable thing about the flu,” Bacani said, “is that it’s completely unpredictable.”
Susan Frick Carlman and Kimberly Fornek contributed to this report
An earlier version of this story published online and in print misattributed the group of nurses that visited sick children at their homes. The nurses were from Skokie Public Health.