New flu strain revives warnings

March 13, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — By this time last year, flu was on a steady decline in Indiana, but while health officials say there’s a strong chance this winter’s flu season has peaked, a recent wave of illnesses from a nastier flu strain is keeping officials alert.

Flu was reported to be widespread in 48 states last week, down from 49 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in its latest report on this flu season.

Of those 48 states reporting widespread activity, 20, including Indiana, reported high activity.

According to the Indiana Department of Public Health’s most recent Weekly Influenza Report, activity was high in the state, and geographical distribution was widespread.

There have been 53 flu-related deaths in the state as of March 2 – including five each in Lake, Monroe, and Marion counties; 13 long-term health facility outbreaks, and three schoolwide outbreaks this season, according to IDPH.

Nationwide, there 26.3 million flu-like illnesses, 12.4 million medical visits and 347,000 flu hospitalizations between October and March 2, according to the CDC.

The CDC’s flu forecasters think there’s a 90 percent chance the flu season has peaked for the year, but its far from over.

But experts also are monitoring an increase in illnesses from a kind of flu virus that tends to cause more hospitalizations and deaths, especially in the elderly.

It’s not unusual for several flu strains to spread around the country at the same time, but one kind usually predominates.

This season, a milder strain has been the most common cause of flu illnesses. But for the last two weeks, more illnesses have been tied to a strain that tends to cause more deaths.

Last week, about 60 percent of the flu virus samples tested were the more troublesome strain, known as Type A H3N2.

Also last week another eight flu-related pediatric deaths were reported to CDC, bringing the total to 64 flu-related deaths for the season.

CDC expects flu activity to remain elevated for a number of weeks, possibly into May, and said an annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against influenza and its potentially serious complications.

Uncertainty about what kind of H3N2 will be spreading later this year recently led the World Health Organization to postpone its decision on which strains should go into the flu vaccine for next season.

Last season, an estimated 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications, the disease’s highest death toll in at least four decades. In recent years, flu-related deaths have ranged from about 12,000 to 56,000, according to the CDC.

But while the disease was deadlier last year – Indiana had 336 deaths – it is apparently causing more sickness this year. Statewide, patients with flulike symptoms accounted for a higher percentage of emergency room visits than at any time this flu season, IDPH reports.

Part of the reason may be that while this season’s vaccine is effective against H1N1 flu, it is only 44 percent effective against H3N2, according to CDC.

CDC officials estimate there have been somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000 flu-related deaths so far this winter. Nine children died of flu-related causes last week, bringing the total for the season to 64. And the actual number is likely much higher because not all flu-related deaths are detected or reported, according to CDC.

In Indiana there have been only two pediatric flu deaths in 2019, but the rate of flu-related emergency room visits for ages 5 to 17 was the highest of any age range, at 8.6 percent.

Officials say nationwide, there have been around 300,000 flu-related hospitalizations and around 25 million flu illnesses this season.

—From staff and wire reports

Restrictions in place at hospitals

MICHIGAN CITY – While it may seem late in the season for flu, a rise in influenza cases in Northwest Indiana has prompted new visitor restrictions at Franciscan Health hospitals, including Michigan City.

To prevent the spread of the flu, visitor restrictions have been implemented at Franciscan Health Crown Point, Hammond, Dyer, Michigan City and Munster.

Signs at the new hospital warn that:

n No more than two visitors at a time are allowed per room

n No children under the age of 16 are allowed

n At Crown Point, visitors to the NICU will be limited to parents or grandparents with proof of flu vaccinations at least two weeks prior, while visitors to the birth unit are limited to two adults and two siblings

While these restrictions may be an inconvenience, they are necessary to ensure patient safety, according to Chris Shakula, infection preventionist at Franciscan Health Crown Point. “If individuals are sick, they shouldn’t be visiting.”

In addition, other precautions are being taken by staff at the hospitals, he said. Any employee unable to receive the influenza vaccine must use a mask. Patients with a cough or other respiratory symptoms must be masked on admission, or when leaving their rooms. Magazines are removed from waiting rooms because of the potential to transmit infections.