The state Department of Health said Friday fewer people went to emergency departments for flu last week than the week before, an indication that Ohioans are starting to recover from the most severe flu season in a decade. Hospitalizations for flu in Ohio are down for the fourth week in a row.
But flu still has a hold on the Buckeye State. Public health officials cautioned flu has run up and down this season and will rage through the winter. In fact, the state report found that doctors’ offices saw 18 percent more patients for flu last week than the week before.
“There’s plenty of flu out there,” said Dr. Steven Englender, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness in the Cincinnati Health Department. “Many parents already recognize from the sick kids they’ve had at home – it’s still going on.”
Englender said that the department’s 18 health centers still see flu raging across Cincinnati at “almost double what the baseline would be. In the report last week we were back down to less than 2 percent of cases. This week, it’s over 3.5 percent.”
Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a sharp spike in child deaths from flu: In one week, the seasonal total went from 63 to 84.
On Thursday, the CDC said that between Oct. 1 and Jan. 20, a weekly count of the nation’s deaths shows that between 5.8 percent and 10.1 percent were caused by flu. The numbers mean the nation is in epidemic and “will likely increase as more data become available.”
Pediatric deaths also are a marker of a severe flu season, and nationally, the number spiked sharply last week. The CDC reported 22 more child deaths in the week ended Feb. 10. One other earlier flu death was reclassified. The total national child death toll from flu now stands at 84. This year, three children in Ohio are among that number, but there have been no child deaths in Ohio for a month.
In all of the 2016-17 flu season nationwide, 110 children died of flu.
Flu season starts in October and generally ends in March but in bad years, the virus remains a threat well into spring. This year, with flu the worst since 2009, health authorities have urged Americans to get vaccinated against flu even now, and even though it will take several weeks for the vaccine to be fully shoring up the body’s immune system.
That’s also despite the fact that a new federal report on the flu shot found that its effectiveness has not been as good as hoped. There are four key strains of influenza virus circulating this year, with the severe H3N2 variety causing about 70 percent of all illness. Federal laboratories found the vaccine was 36 percent effective against H3N2 – not a great number, especially in an epidemic year.
But that means the vaccine offers 36 percent more protection against the flu, “and that’s better than nothing,” Englender said. That edge can prevent illness or even death: The federal report said that of the 63 American children who have died of flu so far this season, three-quarters of them had not been vaccinated.
Better effectiveness numbers came in on the vaccine’s ability to fight the other flu strains: 67 percent against a variation of the H1N1 virus and 42 percent against influenza B. Since flu B tends to rise later in the season, Englender and other health authorities said a vaccine shot even now will help fight off a late dose of flu.
At a Thursday news conference in Washington, Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, said the vaccine was like a seat belt. President Trump got a flu shot, he said.