HARRISONBURG — The worst flu season in years has Rockingham Memorial Hospital officials asking visitors to mask up to protect themselves and others from the influenza virus.
Signs at hospital entrances explain the concern and direct visitors and outpatients to where they can obtain masks, which RMH is providing.
Even people who don’t feel sick are encouraged to wear them, Dr. Dale Carroll said.
“You can transmit the flu about 48 hours before you ever feel like you have the flu,” said Carroll, chief medical officer and senior vice president of clinical effectiveness for RMH.
The flu is now widespread in Virginia and in most of the rest of the country. It’s been blamed for the deaths of 20 children so far throughout the U.S., but none locally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not keep a running tally of adults who die from the flu, but the CDC says about 24,000 people succumb to it each year.
The flu typically peaks in midwinter. Young children, the elderly and people with immunodeficiency diseases are at risk of developing serious complications. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue.
With the flu season peaking early this year, it’s too soon to tell whether it will turn out to be worse than most years.
Because not everyone who has flu-like symptoms is tested for the virus, officials at RMH can’t quantify how many cases they’ve seen so far this season.
But Carroll said there’s been a “significant” increase in upper respiratory infections or influenza-like illnesses since December.
“This is the worst season in probably about five years, and the other difference is it’s peaking much earlier,” he said. “We would expect to see this number in late February, early March.”
Carroll said the strain of influenza predominant this year seems to be making people sicker than the one last year, when the flu season was relatively mild.
“I would not be surprised if the H3N2 is a strain we haven’t seen in the last several years, so there’s not a lot of immunity,” he said.
Carroll said frequent hand washing is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the flu. And though it’s already widespread, he said it’s not too late to get the influenza vaccine.
While there’s no doubt the flu is going around, officials at public school divisions in the central Valley say they’re not seeing particularly high absenteeism.
Scott Hand, director of pupil personnel services for Rockingham County Schools, said there were high illness-related absences at three schools — J. Frank Hillyard Middle, Montevideo Middle and Fulks Run Elementary — late last semester, but attendance has been normal since school resumed last week.
“We’re good right now, knock on wood,” he said.
Harrisonburg City Schools saw a gradual increase in absences toward the end of the fall semester due to illnesses, according to Superintendent Scott Kizner. But like the county, attendance seemed to be back on track with the start of the spring semester.
“It’s not an issue,” he said.
Officials in Shenandoah County Schools also saw high absences in December, prompting the decision to finish the semester early with so many kids out.
Superintendent Keith Rowland said attendance was around 94 percent this week.
“That’s a little lower than normal, but it’s not as bad as it was before Christmas,” he said.
Augusta County Schools also had high absenteeism before the close of last semester, but attendance has returned to normal, said Carol Cash, school health coordinator.
Carroll said it’s not surprising things have been mostly back to normal since winter break, as dozens of kids were no longer gathering daily in a room together coughing and sneezing.
“That chain stopped when they went home,” he said. “Thank God school vacation hit when it did.”
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or email@example.com