‘Tis the season for holiday gatherings, shopping and additional time indoors due to cold, snowy weather.
And with those come more exposure to germs, possibly influenza-related ones, local health officials say.
“Whether you’re staying here in Iowa or traveling to other parts of the U.S., the flu is bound to get to us and it’s important to get protected,” said Jennifer Stiles, CG Public Health acute infectious disease, epidemiology and preparedness assistant manager.
The U.S. winter flu season is off to its earliest start in more than 15 years.
An early barrage of illness in the South has begun to spread more broadly, and there’s a decent chance flu season could peak much earlier than normal, health officials say.
The last flu season to rev up this early was in 2003-2004 — a bad one, and some experts think the early start may mean a lot of suffering is in store, but others say it’s too early to tell.
“It really depends on what viruses are circulating,” said Scott Epperson, who tracks flu-like illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There’s not a predictable trend as far as if it’s early it’s going to be more severe, or later, less severe.”
The Iowa Department of Public Health’s most recent influenza-like illness and other respiratory viruses weekly activity report showed the state’s flu status had “local” geographic spread with 62 influenza-associated hospitalizations, one long-term care outbreak investigation, and 14 schools reporting more than 10% of absences due to any illness from Sept. 29 through Nov. 30.
The report states influenza activity remains low in Iowa, but it has been increasing in recent weeks.
Cerro Gordo County hasn’t had a confirmed case of influenza yet this season, Stiles said.
Influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system, including the nose, throat and lungs. It’s commonly called the flu, but it’s not the same as the stomach “flu” viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting.
The symptoms of the flu can include a sore throat, cough, fever, headache, tiredness, nasal congestion and body aches. The illness usually lasts two to seven days and often puts healthy people in bed for days, the CDC says.
Most cases are mild, but influenza can be serious and even fatal, especially among infants, pregnant women, people 65 and older and those with chronic diseases, like asthma and diabetes.
In November, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced two women, both older than 60, died with flu symptoms — marking the state’s first flu-related deaths of the season.
Health officials, including those in Cerro Gordo County, say the best way individuals can protect themselves — and others — against influenza is to get vaccinated. It’s recommended that everyone ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine. It takes up to two weeks after vaccination for the body to achieve full benefit against the flu virus.
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Stiles said the number of individuals coming to public health to get vaccinated has tapered, but she expects to see an uptick when an influenza case has been confirmed in Cerro Gordo County.
“We continue to give them regularly,” she said. “October is a really busy time, but we’re still giving some this morning.”
Health officials tend to consider a flu season to be officially underway when — for at least three weeks in a row — a significant percentage of U.S. doctor's office visits are due to flu-like illnesses. That's now happened, CDC officials said last week.
The agency on Friday estimated that there have already been 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalizations, and 900 flu-related deaths nationally.
The most intense patient traffic had been occurring in the six states stretching from Texas to Georgia, but in new numbers released Friday, CDC officials said the number of states with intense activity rose last week to 12. Flu is widespread in 16 states, though not necessarily at intense levels in each, the CDC said.
Last flu season started off as a mild one but turned out to be the longest in 10 years. It ended with around 49,000 flu-related deaths and 590,000 hospitalizations, according to preliminary estimates.
It was bad, but not as bad as the one before it, when flu caused an estimated 61,000 deaths and 810,000 hospitalizations. Those 2017-2018 estimates are new: The CDC last month revised them down from previous estimates as more data — including actual death certificates — came in.
In both of the previous two flu seasons, the flu vaccine performed poorly against the nasty predominant virus. It's too early to say how well the vaccine is performing right now, Epperson said.
Epperson said there's a chance the flu season will peak this month, which would be unusually early. Flu season usually doesn't hit fever pitch until around February.
The flu vaccine can be supplemented with hand washing and staying home from work, school or other public activities when experiencing flu-like symptoms, Stiles said.
“It’s the best thing to do,” she said. “It’s important to stay home when running a fever or feeling cruddy because it can spread.”
Flu vaccines are available at CG Public Health, 2075 Fourth St. SW., in Mason City from 10 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday without an appointment.
Stiles said public health accepts most major health insurances, but for those without insurance, the vaccine is $35 for adults and free for children.
For questions about influenza vaccines or the virus, call CG Public Health at 641-421-9300 or visit www.cghealth.com.
Photos: Looking back, MercyOne North Iowa Medical Center
Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.