Dr. Adam Leisy of WBMC is interviewed in Florida Weekly on flu season in PBC

Jan 25, 2019

Feeling achy? Sneezy? Drippy? In short, miserable? You’re not alone.

Some hospitals across South Florida reported a sharp rise in flu cases in December and others said there have been fewer, but still a rising number of cases.

The worst spike reported came from Lee County. Cases of the flu more than tripled at Lee Health hospitals and clinics from about 90 during the week of Dec. 8 to 310 the week of the 23rd.

Lee Health physician Dr. Mary Beth Saunders was not surprised because it’s a time during the holiday season when people are more apt to mix and mingle. That spike subsided by the first week in January (as had cases statewide) but she advises to stay cautious as school gets in to full swing again.

“(The flu) has been on track to where it had been last year locally,” she said. “But we got a very high peak in January last year so hopefully we’re not going to have that happen again. Right now it’s following the same trajectory as it did last year.”

Across Collier, Charlotte, Sarasota and Palm Beach counties, health care workers reported a normal rise in flu cases for the season, October through May, when most infections occur. It’s not possible to predict how the season will go, but most said they expect there to be further potential spikes through March.

“Flu activity has been increasing in south Florida over the past few weeks and is similar to levels observed at this time last flu season,” wrote Brad Dalton, spokesperson for the Florida DOH. “Peak flu season is difficult to predict, but South Florida has experienced peak activity in February and March in previous years.”

Health care experts uniformly echoed the advice that the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others, along with personal hygiene.

“It’s never too late to vaccinate,” says Rob Cosgrove, a Florida Department of Health epidemiologist in Sarasota.

“The best way to avoid the flu is to, number one, take the vaccine,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, a physician and director of the Department of Health in Palm Beach County. “Number two is to wash your hands with soap and water and not touch your hands to your mouth and eyes. And then the third thing is to stay home if you’re sick because if you’re bringing this in to the workplace you’re going to contaminate everybody at work.”

If you think you may have the flu, she added, see a doctor immediately (though try to use a primary care doctor or a walk-in clinic and avoid a costly ER visit).

“There are antivirals that can make this go away much quicker but you have to take those early on,” Dr. Alonso explained.

It takes about two weeks for immunity to kick in after getting your shot. And, if you get the shot and end up with the flu anyway, it will likely lessen the symptoms, cut short the time you’re sick, and lessen the likelihood of complications that can lead to worse conditions such as pneumonia and even death.

Children and the elderly are most at risk for complications along with pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Flu-related illnesses in the 2017-18 season led to 80,000 deaths in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated, one of the worst years on record. Other years, flu-related deaths have ranged widely from 12,000 to 56,000.

Most flu cases this year have been the Flu A H1N1-2009 variety, which is covered by the vaccine along with other common strains.

The flu virus can survive on a hard surface for up to 48 hours, said Lee Health’s Dr. Saunders, and on your hands for about five minutes.

Droplets from a cough or sneeze can remain in the air, especially indoors such as in a closed office or classroom, for hours.

A quick update by county:

The DOH in Collier County reported a “mild” flu season so far. Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Collier County reported a “significant” increase of flu cases between Dec. 9 and 23, about the same dates that Lee Health reported, before declining slightly. NCH Healthcare System also reported increased visits for flu-like symptoms.

The DOH in Charlotte County reported “moderate” flu activity this year so far though nothing out of the ordinary. Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte reported that in 2017 it diagnosed 31 cases of the flu between October and December (with 25 in December alone) and 19 during the same three months this year.

The DOH in Sarasota County has found normal to slow flu activity this year with one spike during December. It also reported that people with the flu tended to have milder symptoms compared to last year.

“I’m seeing less activity (this year),” said epidemiologist Rob Cosgrove, who tracks data from local hospitals, schools, and physicians’ offices. “It’s more mild and (that) goes for the rest of the country and state as well.”

He attributes the milder symptoms people are experiencing this year to people getting their flu shot.

The DOH in Palm Beach County reported mild flu activity so far this year. Physician and director Dr. Alina Alonso said the number of cases of pneumonia and deaths related to the flu are lower this year because more people got the vaccine.

Dr. Adam Leisy, medical director of the emergency room at West Boca Medical Center said he has seen a “swift uptick” in patients with the flu over the last two to three weeks but that their symptoms have been less severe than last year.

“Last year I felt like we were seeing patients that looked sicker- like very high fevers, very dehydrated and shortness of breath,” he said.

Personal wellness

  • Wash hands often with soap and water or if that’s not available use hand sanitizer. Wipe down surfaces before touching them and avoid touching your face after touching these surfaces.
  • Cough into your elbow or cover your nose and mouth with a tissue. Be sure to throw the tissue away after you use it.
  • Do not go to work or school if you feel sick and spread the flu to others.
  • If you think you have the flu, avoid the ER if possible. But seek medical care through a primary care doctor or walk-in clinic as there are antiviral medications that can help reduce the severity of symptoms if taken early — especially for people at risk for developing complications such as children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.
  • Stay home until fever-free for at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication)
  • With New Year’s resolutions, Dr. Saunders adds, your gym might get crowded. When you wash your clothes or towels, she recommends using the hottest setting on the washer with a bleach-based detergent.

Flu symptoms

  • Body aches and pains, cough and chest discomfort which may become severe, early and significant exhaustion, fatigue and weakness that may last up to 2–3 weeks, headache, high fever (102–104 degrees F) for 3–4 days, occasional stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat

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