As experts have warned, a severe flu season is coming early. This is what it means in Hampton Roads. – The Virginia Pilot

As experts have warned, a severe flu season is coming early.  This is what it means in Hampton Roads.  – The Virginia Pilot

The percentage of medical consultations for flu illnesses is triple what is usual at this time of year, according to data released by the Virginia Department of Health.

“We’re seeing worrying signs that this year’s flu season may look worse than what we’ve seen in recent years,” said Dr. Lisa Thanjan of the health department.

Typically this time of year, about 2% of emergency departments and urgent care clinics are for influenza-like illness, while now it’s nearly 7%, a percentage not seen before December in the last five years, based on data going back five years.

Influenza-like illness occurrence in Virginia ranks 10 out of 13 based on data for the week ending October 29, according to the thursday report. The state used various data to determine the burden of the flu, according to Thanjan.

The 2019 and 2021 flu seasons saw a similar spike in emergency departments and urgent care clinics for flu-like illness, but both spikes occurred nine weeks later in the flu season than this year, according to VDH data. The flu is a disease that should not be underestimated, Thanjan said. Annually, the flu is estimated by the CDC have caused between 12,000 and 52,000 deaths and between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations per year in the 2010s.

This year’s situation is complicated by the simultaneous early peak of flu in the flu season, a resurgence of RSV which has been on hiatus in previous years due to COVID-19 precautions and the long-standing presence of COVID-19. All of this is simultaneously affecting school attendance and contributing to long waits at medical centers.

Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters is seeing a surge in patients across its facilities for respiratory infections, said Dr. Christopher Foley, chief medical officer, in a public service video Thursday. When the hospital’s urgent care center in Newport News opened Thursday, nearly 30 people were waiting in line.

“These patients are often not that sick. A lot of times they can be taken care of at home, they can be taken care of with fluids, rest, acetaminophen,” Foley said in the video. “If your child is having difficulty breathing, turning blue, turning gray, has pauses in breathing, has an unusually high fever, isn’t drinking or eating, has difficulty staying awake, those are things you would be much more concerned about. You may need to call your pediatrician or call 9-1-1 if they are turning blue.”

He said they are seeing cases of the flu, RSV, COVID-19 and regular cold viruses and have asked families to be patient as the facility will prioritize the sickest.

Schools have been reaching out to parents, either through newsletters like the one from Virginia Beach City Public School or through automated calls from Hampton City Schools, to remind parents to keep sick children at home and get a flu shot, as well as etiquette and the importance of proper handwashing.

“We are seeing a lot of absences and illnesses, mainly from respiratory illnesses,” said Julie Braley, a VBCPS spokeswoman.

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A Christian school in Richmond closed its high school for two days due to overcrowding this week out of an abundance of caution after an outbreak of influenza-like illness and held classes online, according to WRIC television station information.

The trend of increasing cases of influenza-like illness is not only occurring in Virginia, but also in the southern Mid-Atlantic and southern states, and is increasing in the North, West and West Coast, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC uses a scale from 1 to 13 to characterize the level of flu activity in a state. Virginia was at level 11, along with North Carolina, Maryland, New York City and Texas. The first pediatric death after the flu this season was recorded last week.

CDC and Thanjan recommend flu vaccination as evidence the southern hemisphere, which experiences its flu season earlier than ours, experienced an earlier-than-normal spike in Chile of a certain variant that is already the most common variant in influenza cases in the US, according to to an October 28 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC. Experts have also looked signs in australia about the US having the flu season earlier and stronger than in previous years.

“Their most recent flu season started earlier than during pre-pandemic seasons, which is what it looks like to us,” he said.

Ian Munro, ian.munro@virginiamedia.com

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