New Orleans hasn't been spared the freezing temperatures gripping much of the U.S. this winter — and it hasn't been spared the flu either, with local health officials describing one of the worst seasons for the virus in years.
Louisiana is one of three dozen states across the country with an unusually high number of cases, confirmed by both patients reporting symptoms and lab results, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the metro New Orleans area, pharmacists say antivirals have been flying off the shelves as doctors report treating an elevated number of cases in hospitals, pediatrician’s offices and urgent care centers.
“We’ve seen households sick, families sick, kids at schools sick, so it’s widespread and common,” said Dr. Mike Wasserman, a pediatrician at Oschner Health Center in Metairie. “It’s dramatically increased this year versus the last few years.”
Health experts won’t be able to measure the full impact of the flu season until it ends, according to officials with the Louisiana Department of Health. On average, the flu causes approximately 500 deaths and nearly 3,000 hospitalizations each year in Louisiana.
State health secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee said, however, that she expects to see a spike in the data by the time the season is over.
“In more severe seasons, the flu causes approximately 700 deaths and nearly 8,000 hospitalizations each year,” Gee said in early January. “In Louisiana, we are already on track to meet and possibly exceed these statistics for the current flu season.”
The state health department predicts the severity of the season in part by tracking visits to about 90 sites throughout Louisiana, including hospitals and urgent care centers.
During a normal season, about 4 percent of all visits are for the flu or flu-like illnesses. In the past couple weeks, that number has tripled.
“It’s really terrible,” said Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health Immunization Program.
“In 20 years of doing this, I think I’ve seen it at 8 percent one time for one week. I’ve never seen it for 11 percent and certainly have not seen it this high, for this long, this early.”
One of the reasons the flu is so bad this year is because one strain going around, H3N2, tends to make people sicker for longer, he said.
Also few people tend to get vaccinated in Louisiana. Welch said about 40 percent of the state’s residents typically get the shot, compared to 55 percent to 60 percent of residents in other states.
“It’s still woefully short of where we would want to be,” said Dr. Fred Lopez, an infectious disease specialist at LSU Health Sciences Center.
Data from New Orleans-area hospitals reflect statewide numbers. In the last few weeks, Wasserman at Oschner said he had prescribed about 50 antivirals in the last couple of weeks, at least twice the amount he’s prescribed by this date in the flu season in years past.
And so far, there have been 579 flu cases confirmed at West Jefferson Medical Center. In New Orleans, there have been 847 cases at Touro Infirmary; 696 cases confirmed at Children’s Hospital New Orleans and 273 patients with flu-like symptoms at University Medical Center, according to Beth Romig, a spokeswoman for LCMC Health, the health care system that manages those hospitals.
Dr. Mike Hill, an infectious disease physician at St. Tammany Parish Hospital, said emergency room visits there are about twice what they were last year and that about 11 percent of those visits are from flu-related symptoms or complications.
“It’s almost a parabolic increase,” Hill said.
As flu season progresses, state health experts, doctors and school officials all urged residents to take extra precautions that might help prevent the further spread of the virus, such as washing hands frequently and avoiding shared food.
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer, reminded residents that the flu vaccine is still “readily available” for children and adults throughout the state at health care providers, community pharmacies and parish health units in each region.
Although the vaccine is usually just between 30 percent and 65 percent effective, officials urge that it’s still the best line of defense.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly shot for everyone over 6 months of age who does not have a complicating condition, such as a prior allergic reaction.
The state health department said the flu shot is especially crucial for people who may be at higher risk for serious complications, including young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions and people 65 years and older.
Welch said it was “especially important” that those people get vaccinated to avoid spreading the illness to people who aren’t eligible for the vaccine, including newborns.
State officials are urging people to avoid contact with others for at least 24 hours after all symptoms are gone if they do catch the flu. While sick, Welch said to stay hydrated and seek medicines that help control symptoms.
“If you think you have flu, immediately go home, separate yourself from other people and call your doctor,” Welch said.
Staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this report.