Number of flu cases up dramatically in county

January 12, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

The beginning of the 2003-04 flu season has been a rough one, based on the number of cases reported to the Washington County Health Department.

A department spokesman said reported cases early in the season increased by more than 700 percent over the same period last year.

But while increased cases of influenza appear to have affected bed availability at Washington County Hospital in recent weeks, school officials say attendance has not been hurt more than previous years.


Rod MacRae, spokesperson for the Washington County Health Department, said there have been 189 cases of influenza reported to the department as of Dec. 30. That is a substantial flu-season increase over the amounts reported by Dec. 30, 2002, and Dec. 30, 2001, when there were 25 and 12 reports, respectively.

"This season began a little earlier than is normal," MacRae said. "The curve is farther advanced than it would have been previously."

While MacRae said there is no doubt there are more influenza cases early in this flu season, he noted that reporting cases is not mandatory. As a result, it is nearly impossible to track 100 percent of the cases in any year, he said.

MacRae said the amount of media coverage and word of mouth about the high potency of this year's flu bug may also be factors in the high number of reported cases.

On Jan. 8, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention news release said influenza has peaked in some parts of the country. That same day, a City of Baltimore Health Department news release confirmed that a 3-year-old Baltimore boy died from influenza.

An estimated 36,000 people in the United States die from influenza and related complications every year, with another 114,000 requiring hospitalization from symptoms, according to the release.

MacRae encouraged Washington County residents to take advantage of the vaccine clinic today from 4 to 7 p.m. at the health department's 1302 Pennsylvania Ave. location. He said appointments for a dose of the FluMist influenza vaccine, for people between the ages of 5 and 49, are not necessary, and a $30 donation is requested to offset the cost.

"There certainly isn't a shortage (of the FluMist)," MacRae said. "We encourage people that have a concern, which they should, to come up."

Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel has said the department ran out of its supply of influenza vaccine in early December after administering 6,000 shots. As a result, the department ordered 1,000 doses of the noninjected FluMist vaccine. However, FluMist is not recommended for women who are more than three months pregnant and people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart and kidney disease, HIV and diabetes.

Washington County Hospital was forced to go on red alert twice since Dec. 28, signifying there was a shortage of available monitored beds. Though the first red alert, on Dec. 28, was attributed to many factors, including flu symptoms, spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said symptoms of influenza and pneumonia were the overwhelming reasons for the second red alert on Jan. 5.

Washington County Board of Education spokeswoman Carol Mowen said influenza has been reported by parents and guardians as a reason for absences many times since Dec. 1. However, Mowen said the flu has not caused an unusually high absence rate this school year, especially in recent weeks.

"We had some illness in December, but attendance has been really strong since we came back (from winter break)," Mowen said.

Poll: Have you had the flu this season?

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