Area hospitals are continuing to see high numbers of influenza patients, suggesting that the flu season has yet to peak.
At the University of Kansas Health System, 913 patients have tested positive for the flu so far, 162 of them in the last week alone, according to spokeswoman Jill Chadwick. Seventeen patients currently remain hospitalized.
“This is going down as one of the more aggressive flu seasons in recent memory for us as well as the rest of the nation,” she says.
Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital, says KU first started seeing cases in early and mid-December, about a month earlier than last flu season.
“The last few weeks we certainly have seen still sustained activity,” he says.
The majority of cases have involved the H3N2 strain, which is more resistant to the flu vaccine and tends to lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
Lisa Augustine, a spokeswoman for Children’s Mercy Hospital, says doctors there have seen more flu cases there than in any previous year.
The hospital last week had 528 confirmed cases of influenza A and 139 of influenza B, the two seasonal types of influenza virus, according to Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, chief of Children’s Mercy’s infectious diseases division. Overall, Children’s Mercy, which operates hospitals in Kansas City and Overland Park as well as urgent care clinics and other locations in Missouri and Kansas, reports 3,041 cases this flu season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that influenza activity increased in the United States from January 21 through January 27, the last week for which data is available. Outpatient visits for influenza-like illnesses tallied 7.1 percent, well above the national baseline of 2.2 percent, according to the agency.
Morgan Shandler, a spokeswoman for Shawnee Mission Medical Center, says her hospital had 230 cases in January, with the busiest day occurring on January 13 when there were 15 positive results.
“Overall, it’s starting to slow down but we are still seeing a lot of active flu cases,” Shandler says, adding there’s been an uptick in influenza B cases even as influenza A cases have ticked downward.
“Our urgent care locations are still seeing a peak, which has lasted a couple weeks,” she says.
The data lag a few days behind, Shandler notes, “and I think there are some assumptions that we’re probably experiencing another peak.”
Both Missouri and Kansas, like every state except Oregon and Hawaii, have witnessed “widespread” flu activity this season – defined by the CDC as outbreaks in at least half the regions of a state.
To date, there have been 66,373 confirmed cases in Missouri, nearly 10,000 of them last week alone. In Kansas, health care providers are not required to notify the state when patients are diagnosed with the flu. But the data show a higher percentage of hospital visits for flu-like illnesses than in the previous two seasons.
Kinsa Inc., which makes “smart thermometer” apps that track fever spikes in real time, last week reported that Kansas had become the nation’s flu epicenter, with 6.6 percent of the population displaying flu-like symptoms. Missouri was a close second at 6.5 percent.
Hawkinson, of KU, says it’s still not too late to get a flu shot. Although this season’s vaccine appears to be less effective than in previous flu seasons, it remains the best way to protect against the illness as well as to mitigate its symptoms.
“It can help reduce severity of the illness, reduce missed days of work and also possibly help reduce spreading it to loved ones,” he says.
Beyond that, Hawkinson says, there are three important steps to take to reduce the chance of coming down with the flu or, if you do, spreading it to others: wash your hands; don’t put your hands in your eyes, mouth or nose; and cough or sneeze into your elbow.
“Those are three very important things to help reduce the spread of influenza but also other respiratory viruses which are very common during this season as well,” he says.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.