Flu activity has declined but remains high in Georgia.
The Georgia Department of Public Health said 5.5 percent of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Jan. 5, down from 7.4 percent of visits the week before, according to the most recent report released on Friday.
Concerns about the flu are well-founded. Since the flu season began in early October, the illness has killed five people in Georgia — four adults and a child — and there have been 674 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to flu symptoms.
In the most recent data set from the Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report released Friday, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia’s high level of influenza-like illness makes it one of several states, including Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, Utah and New Jersey, experiencing high rates of the flu.
The CDC also announced Friday an estimated 6.2 million to 7.3 million people in the United States have been sick with the flu since the season’s start in October. At least half of those people have sought medical care, and between 69,000 and 84,000 people have been hospitalized during the Oct. 1 to Jan. 5 period, the CDC estimated.
Flu activity is unpredictable. Georgia’s 2017-18 flu season didn’t subside until the end of April. It claimed 154 lives statewide and led to more than 3,000 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta. Local health officials called it the worst outbreak in decades. The previous year saw nine flu-related deaths in Georgia.
So far this season, H3N2, a form of influenza A, is more prevalent in Georgia. It is a more severe strain that can be particularly dangerous for the very young, the elderly and expectant mothers. The strain H1N1 is more prevalent nationally.
A year ago, at the height of the 2017-18 flu outbreak, waiting rooms were swamped at hospitals here and across the country. For the first time, Grady Memorial Hospital set up a mobile emergency department outside to help handle flu patients last January.
It’s also hard to say why the flu season was so harsh last year and whether the flu this season will continue to decrease and set the stage for a gentler flu season, or tick back up during the coming weeks.
After a holiday break, many people returned to their routines this week, with kids going back to school, and adults returning to work.
In metro Atlanta, several school systems, including those in Cherokee, Forsyth and Fulton counties, said they are not seeing an uptick in flu cases. In fact, Susan Hale, spokesperson for Fulton County Schools, said she thinks the recent holiday vacation time helped “break the cycle of the virus spreading person to person at school.”
Holiday breaks can be both good and bad for flu.
On the one hand, holiday celebrations bring travelers together, so the chance for flu to spread is greater, especially among those who didn’t get a flu shot, according to Dr. Andi Shane, medical director of hospital epidemiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
At the same time, the holiday break can offer time to rest and recuperate for those who may be ill. It can also be a good time to get a flu shot for those who haven’t already. Health care professionals continue to emphasize it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
Each year, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, tens of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from a flu-related illness. This costs an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and an additional $16.3 billion in lost earnings annually, according to the CDC.
About half of Americans get annual flu shots. In recent years, flu vaccination rates have been on the rise, particularly among children, standing at about 60 percent for children and about 42 percent for adults.
FLU PREVENTION TIPS
People should always practice good health hygiene, but it is particularly important now with flu circulating.
Dr. Andi Shane, medical director of hospital epidemiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, provides key strategies for flu prevention:
Get the flu shot. Hospitals and clinics are seeing higher rates of flu infection, but it’s still not too late to get a flu vaccine. Even if a flu vaccine does not completely protect you or your family from having the flu, people who get flu shots tend to experience fewer days of symptoms, less severe symptoms and are less likely to need medical care.
Hand hygiene should be practiced by everyone. Wash your hands, and your children’s hands, frequently, especially after coughing or sneezing. You can also use an alcohol-based sanitizer to keep hands clean.
Cover your cough and sneezes with the inside of your elbow or a tissue that is then discarded. Sneezing into the inside of your elbow or a tissue reduces the chances those droplets (those tiny drops from a sick person) will fly out when you cough or sneeze and land on the mouths or noses of people nearby.
Stay home when sick. To reduce the spread of flu infections in the community, stay home from work or school when ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone (except to get medical care or other necessities). The fever should be gone for at least 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol. You should stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings when ill with the flu.
Take care of yourself. To help your immune system be in good enough shape to fight off the flu and other germs, eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise.
Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.