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Health

Flu season makes impact across Colorado

Health officials say it's not too late to get vaccine

Posted

A record number of Coloradans have been hospitalized for the flu this year, and metro-area health officials are urging residents to get the vaccine for the contagious illness if they haven't already done so.

This year's flu season has resulted in more than 3,550 people being hospitalized in Colorado, with one recorded pediatric death in the state. According to a Feb. 17 flu report issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the 2017-2018 season has seen the highest number of influenza-associated hospitalizations in a single season for Colorado.  

The nation has seen some of the highest levels of flu-like illness and hospitalization rates in recent years, with elevated activity occurring in most of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With about two months left in the flu season, which typically runs from November through the end of April, local officials say vaccination is still a good idea — even amid talk of this season's vaccine being less effective than in a typical year.

“It's not just how effective the vaccine is at completely preventing infection,” said Dr. John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. “The vaccine can also reduce the severity of the infection, and is fairly effective in reducing the degree if you get infected. It can also reduce your contagiousness to others, so if you live with somebody who would really get sick with the flu, get vaccinated. You'll be doing them all a favor.”

There are four types of influenza in play this year, Douglas said, and the effectiveness of the vaccine has varied depending on the type of flu. H3N2 (A) has been one of the most common strains, and according to Douglas, the vaccine rate of effectiveness has been about 25 percent. The vaccine has been between 42 percent and 67 percent effective in fighting other types of flu, he said.

According to the CDC's seasonal infuenza vaccine effectiveness report, since 2005, effectiveness has ranged from a low of 10 percent in 2005 to a high of 60 percent in 2010-11, with a typical year being 40-something percent.

Impact on children

Douglas said the one pediatric death this season in Colorado is one too many.

“As it's turning out, the majority of the kids nationally who died from the flu did not get the vaccine,” said Douglas. “The vaccine is never perfect, but is does appear to still have some protectiveness to it.”

The state reports flu-associated hospitalizations, and as of Feb. 17, 36 children under the age of six months have been admitted to hospitals so far; 66 children from six to 23 months have been admitted, and 81 children between two and four years have been admitted.

While 146 school-age children from 5 to 18 years old have been admitted to hospitals, officials at metro-area school districts say that have not seen a higher-than-usual absenteeism rate this school year.

“According to attendance numbers, we've remained pretty consistent with this time last year,” said Paula Hans, public information officer for the Douglas County School District. “During the December and January time frame, we always have about a 94 to 96 percent attendance rate, and that has remained consistent this year.

“We recommend hand washing and using hand sanitizer, and staying home if you're showing any symptoms, whether you're a student or a staff member,” said Hans. “Neither should come to school until they've had at least 24 hours without a fever, without using any medication. Our health and wellness team monitors and takes action if needed, but we haven't received any concerns about excessive illness.”

Adams 12 Five Star Schools health Coordinator Julie J. McRae said the district is seeing a decline in the number of flu and flu-like cases as the school year progresses.

“We did see higher than average cases in some pockets across the district this season, but have continued our standard practices serving the health needs of all of our students and schools,” said McRae. “Each year our school and district health staff use and distribute a handout on “When is Too Sick,” follow CDPHE guidelines and consult with our local health departments for guidance. Additionally this year, we are emphasizing the importance of hand washing and working closely with our custodial staff to provide for any additional cleaning precautions as necessary.”

Diane Leiker, director of communications for Littleton Public Schools, said absences this year have been on par with other years.

“LPS experiences a higher number of absences during cold and flu season every year, and this year is no exception, as is the case in any school, university, and place of business across the nation," she said via email. "LPS works with our school nurse consultants and follows the guidelines provided by Tri-County Health that encourage proper hand washing, etc. LPS keeps facilities clean year-round, not just during cold and flu season. We encourage our students and employees to stay home if they are sick and to not return to school until they are well."

Jefferson County School District reported similar results on number of absences this year.

“Our community has not seen an increase in absences compared to this time last year,” said Julie Wilken, R.N., director of the Department of Health Services.

“We take the education and prevention of any illness, not just flu, very seriously in our schools. During these winter months, our district nurses have taken a very proactive approach in educating our school staff and students about the importance of hand washing. We have implemented extra signs up in our schools demonstrating how to appropriately wash hands, reminded teachers and principals of our hand-washing protocol and distributed it via paper and email, and our nurses have gone into classrooms and practiced good hand-washing techniques using Glo Germ products with black lights. Teachers have also taken the initiative in our classrooms to proactively have students wipe down their own desks and belongings extra times during the day with disinfectants."

Know the symptoms

Dr. Ashley Peko, assistant medical director of the emergency department at Parker Adventist Hospital, said getting a flu shot is still an important option for those who haven't already.

“We're seeing the flu in everybody, of all ages. Proportionately it's been those without a vaccine, but those who have received the vaccine are also at risk,” said Peko. “There have been more than 63 pediatric deaths nationally so far, so this is pretty serious.”

Peko said recognizing true flu symptoms is vital in combating the spread of influenza.

“Influenza comes with a true fever, body aches and a cough,” said Peko. “It's highly contagious, and anyone with the flu should wait until at least 24 hours without a fever, without using ibuprofen or Tylenol, before returning to work or school.”

Douglas agrees that identifying the flu is key to preventing spread of the virus, and recommends calling your doctor for a prescription for Tamiflu if you believe you have the flu.

“If you get a flu-like illness, and especially if you have an underlying medical condition, we recommend you make that phone call to your doctor for an antiviral. Don't go to a waiting room and infect other people,” said Douglas.

Flu season is something everyone needs to take seriously, and taking precautions benefits communities across the state.

“Flu kills more people than any other infectious disease," he said. "We have better prevention tools, but we need as many people as possible to take it seriously."

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