WWL-TV: Flu season continues to be mercifully quiet in Louisiana _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Rolling up his shirt sleeve, 4th grader Ronnie Smith, right, takes the flu shot in stride as Registered Nurse Gail Lamb, left, administers the vaccine.

The flu hit Louisiana in a big way in December, and medical professionals are worried that the early weeks of 2018 may prove just as bad or worse.

“We have had a massive surge of the flu this flu season,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.

O’Neal said that a year ago in December, the hospital, not counting outpatient facilities, administered 1,500 tests, and only 98 were positive. This past month saw a dramatic increase, as the hospital administered 4,300 flu tests and 1,100 were positive.

The spike in activity came months earlier than normal and at levels higher than even peak times, O’Neal said.

“Those are not the kind of numbers we typically see in February and March,” she noted.

Nearby at Baton Rouge Clinic, the story is similar. About 50 patients a week were testing positive for flu early in the month. That doubled by the last two weeks of December and those rates are likely to continue for awhile, said Dr. Ricky Winburn, an internal medicine doctor with the clinic.

“Over the last week, every office was full,” Winburn said. “It’s hard to find space. Everyone is overbooked.”

The trend in Baton Rouge mirrors what is occurring across the country. Epidemiologists in 36 states have reported widespread influenza activity to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its latest data was released Friday and covers activity through the third week in December. On a color-coded map, the CDC paints 16 states, including Louisiana, in dark red to indicate the places with the most activity.

“We are a fairly high level, and I suspect it’s going to last awhile,” said Dr. Raoult Ratard, the state epidemiologist.

With flu so common, medical professionals are urging people who catch the illness to stay at home and not go out again until at least a day after it passes.

“We are trying to remind people not to go places when you are sick,” O’Neal said. “The best way to prevent continued spread is to stay where you are.

“Don’t go to school, don’t go to work. Don’t go to the hospital to see your loved ones when they are sick.”

Both schools and workplaces that closed for the holidays are about to reopen. The East Baton Rouge Parish school system will be one of the first, with schools starting Thursday.

“We’re always screening for kids who are running a fever and achy. We know it’s here,” said Sue Catchings, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Health Centers in Schools.

Catchings' nonprofit organization runs several school-based health centers and oversees school nurses for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Catchings said she does not recall an unusual amount of flu activity in Baton Rouge public schools when they were open between Thanksgiving and Christmas but said those breaks likely interrupted the infectious cycle. She said she expects to see more activity when schools reopen. Consequently, nurses will be on alert and will send home children flagged for potential flu until they can see their primary care physicians, she said.

Winburn urged those who experience flu-like symptoms not to wait to get treatment. The medicine he usually prescribes, Tamiflu, works best if taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Waiting longer likely means a much longer period of illness and recovery, he said.

Ratard said the flu vaccine is still a viable option, especially given the prospect of a prolonged flu season.

The flu vaccine developed to combat the infection this year has come under criticism for being less effective than those in years past. For instance, officials in Australia, which went through its flu season six months ago, estimated that the vaccine worked only 10 percent of the time to head off the dominant H3N2 flu virus.

But the CDC, however, notes that the flu strains they are seeing this year are similar to those that were active last year. Consequently, the federal health agency is estimating that this year’s vaccine should be up to 32 percent effective again the H3N2 virus and even more effective against the other common flu viruses, H1N1 and B.

Even if it doesn’t prevent the flu, Ratard said the vaccine will at least mitigate some of the worst aspects of the infection, especially for “the very young and the very old.”

“If you get the vaccine, the flu is not going to be so severe,” Ratard said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.