Worst of cold, flu season yet to hit region

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The peak of cold and flu season is not yet upon the state, but local doctors’ offices are already reporting a sharp increase in flu patients.

“We saw about 30 to 35 people with the flu last week,” said Thibodaux Urgent Care owner and medical director Dr. John King. “Sunday we had about an hour and 15 minute wait because we were so busy, and some people even left. We will be adding extra physicians in the next few weeks because we are seeing the virus earlier this year. I think it will be a busy year for the flu virus. It’s like a freight train gaining momentum.”

According to King, many of the patients coming in to his Thibodaux office have Flu A, a more aggressive strain of the virus that caused pandemics and epidemics in the early 1900s, while those in his Luling office are coming in with Flu B, which has more constitutional symptoms that Flu A.

“We have had patients of all ages, but not many elderly,” King said. “They are getting their flu shots.”

On Sunday, staff at the Thibodaux Urgent Care office administered 25 flu shots, and the Luling office administered eight. King’s Thibodaux office also administered shots to all 700 Lafourche Parish School Board employees earlier this fall.

“Between those employees and the general public, we have given more than 1,000 shots since early September,” he said. “Teachers really need to get the shot because they have the potential to infect the 30 students in their classrooms. Healthcare professionals and those who deal with the public on a regular basis should also get the shot.”

“People should get the shot in early November because it takes two weeks to get into your system,” King added.

These days, shots are available for about $20 to $35 and can also be received at hospitals, pharmacies and drug stores.

“In four hours, we had 36 people show up for the shot at our Nov. 1 flu shot day,” said Rhonda Alford, director of marketing and planning for Terrebonne General Medical Center. “I believe there is an increased awareness about the flu and the benefits of getting the flu shot to protect yourself. Our emergency department has begun to see some cases of the flu to date, but we have not reached the peak of the flu season as of yet.”

Research from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals over the past 15 to 20 years indicates that the usual peak for state’s flu season is between February and March, two months after the national peak in December, and those who do get the shot now would be right on time for protecting themselves from sniffles, fever, coughing, missed work or school days and a diet of chicken noodle soup.

“It’s actually never too late to get the shot,” said Department of Health and Hospitals program manager Frank Welch. “When it is summer here, it is winter in other countries. People will travel to places where it is winter and bring it back when it is summer here.”

According to Welch, the Center for Disease Control has also changed its policy of getting all available shots to high-risk people like children, those who are chronically ill and the elderly to recommending that everyone get the shot.

“Children who do get the shot miss an average of four less days of school, and adults who have the shot miss five less days of work,” he said. “Those who have received the shot also have a less significant chance of having a heart attack. There are all kinds of good reasons to have the flu shot.”

According to CDC numbers, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year for flu-related complications and about 36,000 people die each year from the flu.

“Currently, we are only seeing low levels of flu here in the state, but the only thing that we can predict about the flu is that it is unpredictable,” Welch said. “The last three years have not exactly followed the February through March pattern. In 2009, the H1N1 outbreak peaked here in December. Last year, we had high peaks in April, but not the H1N1 virus. It’s always impossible to tell how bad a flu season will be.”

Even though the virus is mostly a threat here in the winter months, the Department of Health and Hospitals monitors the virus on a global level year-round and, locally, more than 80 physicians from around the state help to track the virus on home-turf.

“They let us know the number of patients coming in with influenza like symptoms – watery eyes, head aches, body aches and coughing,” Welch said. “We learn later, about two or three weeks after the patient’s initial visit, that the sickness was usually just a common cold. Visits for colds are up in Louisiana, but I do expect flu to pass that up in a few weeks.”

In addition to the number of people getting the flu shot, Welch also credits the state’s climate for curbing the spread of the virus.

“This virus spreads from person to person when people congregate, especially with the holidays, but, in Louisiana, we can spend extended periods of time outside because our winters aren’t as harsh,” he said. “In the northern states, the first cold snap of the winter marks the start of their flu season, but that also makes their flu season more predictable than ours. About 15 percent of the people in the state get the flu each year, about the same as in the rest of the states.”

“Get the flu shot, wash your hands, cover you mouth when you cough, and you should be safe,” Welch said. “If sick you are sick, stay home from school and work.”

Even though there have been no irregular drops in attendance, school board employees in St. Mary, Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes are also spreading the word about not spreading germs.

“As we approach the flu season each year, we send out emails to everyone encouraging them to get the vaccine,” said Lydia Duval, R.N., school health facilitator for the St. Mary Parish School Board. “We are proactive about health.”

Currently the school’s attendance is 93 to 96 percent district-wide, average for this time of year, but Duval said there have been some students with flu-like symptoms.

“We ask those with a fever of 100 or higher who are experiencing flu-like symptoms to stay home until they have been fever-free for 24 hours,” Duval, who helps conduct school training for dealing with sicknesses, said. “Hydrate until you can see doctor, take fever control medicines like acetaminophen and isolate yourself.”

Duval said a flu kit from the Department of Health and Hospitals as well the school’s participation in a point of dispensing practice have helped prepare the school for dealing with viruses like the flu.

In Terrebonne Parish, school attendance numbers are also at normal levels.

“We have been fortunate so far,” said Linda Joseph, supervisor of child welfare and attendance for the Terrebonne Parish School Board. “If children are ill, please keep them home and take care of them so that they can come back to school.”

According to Joseph, December through February is the time period when schools in the parish see the most absences from the flu.

“Last year wasn’t bad, but 2010 was bad,” she said. “We had more students out than normal, mostly in the elementary schools.”

Like St. Mary Parish, schools in Terrebonne Parish are also making sure that students know the importance of washing or sanitizing their hands and sneezing into the inside of their elbows instead of their hands.

“We are prepared, the same as every year,” Joseph said.

Mary-Ann Bouterie, staff manager with the Lafourche Parish School Board, also said that the 2010 flu season caused lower attendance numbers at schools in the district.

“We had more students than normal absent due to sickness, both in the elementary and high schools,” Bouterie said. “I’m not expecting it to be bad this year. We have lots of nurses on staff, one at almost every school, and they are helping to teach the children about hygiene like washing their hands and keeping them below the shoulders – away from the mouth, eyes and nose. Don’t wipe these areas with your hands because you are giving the virus an opportunity to get into your system.”

Flu symptoms include fever, coughing, sneezing and sore throat. Even though the flu season does not usually peak in Louisiana until Febraury or March, local doctor’s offices are already seeing an increased number of flu patients.