Flu season arrived early and abruptly for Dr. Colleen Olson.
Recently, the pediatrician with Mercy noticed a surge in patients with flu-like illnesses — more typical of activity she usually sees in late January or February.
“I was really surprised when all of a sudden, just about two weeks ago ... everybody was getting so sick,” she said. “I haven’t remembered a season in a long time where it started this early.”
Influenza has picked up a more feverish pace across Ohio, Michigan, and in local counties — prompting health officials and doctors to remind those who haven’t already received a flu vaccine to do so promptly.
Flu’s nasty symptoms include coughing, nasal congestion, fever, sore throat, headache, and muscle ache: Misery that can make one feel “pretty lousy” for a couple weeks, Dr. Olson said. In the most severe cases, it can lead to influenza-related deaths.
The Michigan Department of Community Health reported three influenza-associated child deaths this season. None has been reported in Ohio.
Dr. Olson has seen children with upper-respiratory illnesses, and she’s sure the flu is to blame for some of it. For the last several months, she’s recommended getting a flu shot and continues to urge it.
“Even now I stress it so much to all parents and to all kids above six months of age. I’m like begging them to get [it],” she said.
In Ohio, 1,230 flu-related hospitalizations have occurred through Dec. 29, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health. That’s up significantly from the same time period in the two previous flu seasons. Last season saw 71 hospitalizations within the same period and 104 hospitalizations in the 2010-2011 season.
Northwest Ohio has had fewer hospitalizations than some regions of the state. The northwest region, which includes Lucas County and 17 surrounding counties, reported 92 flu-related hospitalizations so far this season, compared with 354 from central Ohio, 269 from the northeast, and 263 from the eastern central part of the state.
Lucas County reported 19 flu-related hospitalizations through the end of December, up from just one the year before during the same timeframe and eight in 2010-11.
Dr. David Grossman, health commissioner for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said local numbers, which started early but aren’t yet “massive,” may be the luck of the draw and could be in part because of immunization efforts.
The health department, along with other agencies, urged giving vaccines earlier this season in anticipation that the flu may take hold sooner.
Springlike weather arrived earlier last year, so officials thought flu could come earlier too, he said.
Health officials said it’s difficult to predict the flu. Dr. Brian Kaminski, medical director at ProMedica Toledo Hospital emergency center, said factors such as the strain of the virus and how easily it’s spread are among variables that can determine when flu season peaks.
“The flu season can extend into the spring and generally includes a ramp up and a wind down. What we don’t know is how big that ramp up is going to be,” he said.
“Some years it’s a mild increase. This year it looks to be at least already a moderate flu season.”
He said this season looks as if it has arrived earlier than in the previous two years, but not as early as in 2009, when H1N1, or swine flu, struck many and peaked in October.
“This looks like it’s on track to be the most severe flu season we’ve had since 2009,” Dr. Kaminski said.
Fulton County hasn’t had any flu-related hospitalizations so far this season, but flu reports spiked sooner than usual.
In December, the county health department recorded 52 cases of physician-reported influenzalike illness and 42 cases in which a test showed influenza, for a total of 94 flu cases.
In December, 2011, there were a total of 13 cases reported in the county, said nursing director Cindy Rose.
“It is a bit earlier in the season, and it’s ramping up right now,” Ms. Rose said.
A handful of flu-related hospitalizations were reported by the Wood County Health District, said epidemiologist Nikki Brue.
The health district reported five positive flu tests in November and 20 in December at area hospitals.
Last flu season, there were no reports until after the new year, she said.
Henry County Health Commissioner Anne Goon said at least 68 cases of flu-like illness have been reported by physicians this season and the health department reports at least seven lab-confirmed cases. One flu-related hospitalization is recorded.
At this point last season, the county had just one lab-confirmed case and 43 physician-diagnosed cases.
Ms. Goon said health departments’ vaccination numbers are dropping as more retailers and drugstores provide the service. It appears flu cases so far are “well matched with the immunization,” she said.
Dr. Kaminski said he’s had more than one patient who said they received a flu shot this season but still tested positive for the flu.
Vaccine effectiveness can differ from year-to-year, he said.
Dr. Kaminski said people can tell the difference between a cold and a flu by the flu’s quick onset that “feels like a ton of bricks that hits you all at once.”
And if you think it’s the flu, he suggests quick action. Medication such as Tamiflu can help if administered within the first 48 hours, he said.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6065.