NEW JERSEY – This is the usual time of year for influenza to take its grip on everyone, from those with robust health to those with weakened immune systems. And whether it’s because of our hyperconnected world, or because this year’s virus really is worse, there is the perception that this season is one for the record books.
“Every season is a bad flu season, generally. That’s something we echo from CDC (Centers for Disease Control). Specifically, this year we are experiencing higher flu-like illness activity in comparison to previous flu seasons, specifically in the areas of emergency department and long-term care facilities,” said Dr. Tina Tan, state department of health assistant commissioner and state epidemiologist.
While it’s announced on a Google or print calendar, flu season is usually recognized as starting in October or November, and stretching through to May. While it’s not impossible to catch the flu in the spring and summer months, the warm weather that draws people outside is a killer for the bug.
This flu season has been dominated by the AH3N2 strain, which is associated with more severe seasons. The virus poses the greatest threat to young children and those 65 and older, but as Tan said, it sends persons of all ages to the ER.
“This season there has been a large number of influenza outbreaks in long term care facilities with more than half of newly report outbreaks for this season have occurred in the last three weeks. We have surpassed the number of outbreaks reported for the last three influenza seasons including the 2014-2015 season,” said Dawn Thomas from the Department of Health’s Office of Communications.
Only pediatric influenza deaths are reportable. So far, there have been three deaths reported. In the last five years, the 2012-13 flu season saw the most pediatric flu-related deaths, with seven reported. Last season, there were no reported pediatric flu deaths.
Predicting what virus will dominate a season or why some years are seemingly worse than others is fool’s errand, officials said.
“Flu in general is pretty unpredictable, so we can’t really predict why one strain might predominate one season over another,” Tan said.
Influenza throughout Ocean County has been widespread since early December, the county department of health reported.
OCHD’s Brian Rumpf confirmed that it’s the H3N2 strain that is hitting the county hardest.
“It’s not necessarily worse, the worst that we have seen by any stretch. It’s a bad strain of the flu, and its hit everywhere at once,” Rumpf said. “And this year has had a few other anomalies that have truly caused the flu to be a lot more concerning to a lot of people. Among those anomalies are that this year, the flu is found to be very widespread virtually everywhere in the United States. So we are seeing wide-scale reporting of the flu everywhere from Florida to Alaska and all points in between. That’s somewhat atypical, as usually we’ll see flu hit different pockets of the country at different times of the flu season. That makes it more noticeable, and it’s caught our attention for that reason,” he said.
Rumpf continued: “Also this year, most authorities would agree that the flu seems to have started somewhat earlier. There were reports of widespread flu activity as early as November. What that means is that it really had the opportunity to spread during the social holiday season and that simply compounded the number of people who were affected as they traveled back home from the holidays.”
With all the cold weather, people have stayed indoors, which makes them more likely to share and spread any illness.
Rumpf said vaccinations are still available. The fee is being waived. For the schedule, visit bit.ly/2CtS1m0.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control – All U.S. states but Hawaii and Oregon continue to report widespread flu activity and the number of states experiencing high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity increased from 42 states plus New York City and the District of Columbia to 43 states plus New York City,” Christopher P. Merkel, Public Health Coordinator for the Monmouth County Department of Health, said. “Locally, New Jersey is currently experiencing widespread influenza activity throughout the entire state. Monmouth County is also experiencing high flu activity at this time.”
The county’s department of health staff has been working diligently to provide information to its citizens about the severity of this flu season, as well as tips to reduce the risk of exposure, Freeholder Patrick Impreveduto said. He’s liaison to the Monmouth County Health Department.
“The Monmouth County Health Department would like to remind residents to wash their hands, cover their cough and stay home from work or school if they are sick,” Impreveduto said.
For more information, including flu shot times and locations, visit visitmonmouth.com/health.