While it seems everyone is freaked out about that scary new virus in the world — the coronavirus from Wuhan, China — our old seasonal nemesis, the flu, is still the more dangerous bug in the United States.
Flu has been in high gear in much of the nation, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, since Christmas week. Reports from area health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week show it’s still going strong. Nate Wardle, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the last two weeks have been the worst of the season.
The CDC estimated Friday that 22 million Americans have gotten the flu this season, 210,000 have been hospitalized because of it, and 12,000 have died. That includes 78 children. Pennsylvania reported 1,311 flu-associated hospitalizations and 40 deaths through Feb. 1. Twenty-nine of those were in people age 65 and older. New Jersey, which does not report adult deaths, said two children have died.
Flu “is our important epidemic right now that is affecting our community in a big way,” said Kristen Feemster, an infectious-disease doctor who is medical director of the Philadelphia health department’s immunization and acute communicable disease program.
On a positive note, the CDC said that hospitalizations and deaths are not higher than usual for this point in flu season. Experts in this area also described a fairly average flu season in terms of how sick the virus is making people.
Meanwhile, there have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Flu season got off to a fast start this year in late December with an early round of influenza B, a flu strain that usually shows up in the spring. It looked as if the season might peak quickly, but, after a brief dip, graphs measuring flu activity have generally popped back up and stayed high.
Feemster said it looks as if this flu season may have more than one high point. “We’re starting to see increases again,” she said.
Influenza A, which has a reputation as the meaner brand of flu, is growing in strength now, while B has stabilized at a fairly high level. Feemster said young children and teenagers tend to be more vulnerable to influenza B, and that is reflected in city data showing who is going to emergency departments with flulike illnesses.
Nationally, people age 65 and older have been more likely to need to stay in the hospital due to the flu.
Peter Axelrod, an infectious-disease doctor at Temple University Hospital, said influenza A tends to infect the most people in February and sometimes into early March. The season usually winds down by April.
Flu measurement is an inexact science, meant more to alert public health authorities to what’s circulating than to count every case. Doctors in Pennsylvania are supposed to report positive flu tests, but many people either don’t get tested or aren’t sick enough to be seen by a doctor. Wardle said the state Health Department likely hears of about 5% to 20% of cases. Last year, 120,000 cases were reported.
Axelrod and Feemster said they had not heard of clinics being swamped with patients worried about coronavirus. Axelrod said he has been surprised, though, by the numbers of medical personnel who travel between Temple and China.
Anyone who seeks care for respiratory symptoms now can expect to be asked whether they’ve recently been to China, particularly the city of Wuhan or Hubei province.
Flu tends to come on suddenly with body aches. Feemster said flu and coronavirus can both cause fever, respiratory symptoms, and shortness of breath. “At first glance, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two,” she said. That’s why travel history and testing are important.
Hospitals often add extra visiting restrictions during flu season. AtlantiCare, for example, announced Friday that children under age 14 can no longer visit several campuses of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center. The hospital always denies visitors with respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms. In a written release, the hospital said it and its satellite emergency departments had treated 195 people who tested positive for flu between Jan. 28 and Feb. 5. Some had more than one type of flu.
The experts continue to recommend getting the flu shot, which takes about two weeks to become fully effective. “If somebody got sick from influenza B they can still get sick from influenza A,” Wardle said.