Flu outbreak hits region hard

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Dec 22, 2017 at 12:05 AM

Are you experiencing a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and/or fatigue?

If so, you’re not alone.

Health professionals say the flu is now widespread in the Tri-Cities region — more than a month before it usually hits.

Just this week, officials at both Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System saw a drastic increase in flu cases. During the week of Dec. 3, both providers recorded 54 positive flu cases. The next week, cases climbed to 140.

“It’s looking like it's going to be a bad year,” Jamie Swift, director of infection prevention for Mountain States Health Alliance, said. “We’re certainly seeing these numbers early. Typically we don’t see a peak until February, so it’s definitely an early start.

“We know the flu is heavy in our area now, so be aware, keep your hands clean, and take extra measures to keep yourself healthy.”

“A high burden on our facilities”

This year’s flu season has already prompted health care providers to restrict visitation at all hospitals to protect patients and prevent the spread of the flu. Mountain States and Wellmont are asking anyone younger than 12 and anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms to refrain from visiting patients at hospitals.

Before those restrictions, local providers deployed a number of precautions, including handing out masks at each entrance and registration area and designating separate waiting areas for patients experiencing fevers or flu-like symptoms.

Swift said the recent numbers have put a “high burden on our facilities.”

“With our numbers increasing so rapidly this week, we want to limit children or sick visitors from coming in and getting exposed or spreading it if they have symptoms,” she said.

Vaccine effectiveness varies

Swift said part of the reason we are seeing such a dramatic increase in flu cases is because the vaccine hasn’t been as effective for Influenza A H3N2, the dominant strain this year.

“Any time this is the dominant strain, we see a more severe season because that typically causes a more severe illness,” she said.

Still, Swift urged local residents, especially infants, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, to get the vaccine.

“We’ve seen a sharp increase in flu cases over the last several days, and we expect the numbers to continue to grow,” Swift said in a press release announcing the hospital visitation restrictions. “We’re implementing these restrictions at our hospitals to protect our patients and our community as a whole. We are entering the peak of flu season much earlier this year, so if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, please get one. Now is the time.”

Sick of it already

With the flu already spreading rapidly throughout Northeast Tennessee, locals like Elizabeth Whitaker have already witnessed the effects.

“My kids had it last week! It was horrible,” she wrote to the Johnson City Press. “My oldest son who is five had it bad. He had a fever of 102-103 the whole time and he just wanted to sleep.

“He was sick for four days and we took him to the doctor and they prescribed Tamiflu. That helped a lot. We had an appointment to get the flu shot this week.”

Though it is tough during the holidays, health care professionals are urging people to limit their contact with others and avoid travel when possible. With children out of school, the region could still experience a continued increase in flu numbers in the coming weeks during seasonal gatherings with friends and family members.

“Around the holidays, we’re around a lot of family and friends, and that usually increases your chances of getting illnesses, not just flu,” said Christen Minnick, director of the Washington County Health Department.

In addition to receiving the vaccine, take these precautions to avoid getting sick:

• Wash hands frequently with soap and water for about 20 seconds.

• Always cover your cough or sneeze with your sleeve or a tissue.

• Stay home from work, school or other gatherings when sick to help prevent the spread of flu or other illnesses.

• When school is out, avoid sending children to day care centers if possible.

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