Flu Cases Declining

But Professionals Say Virus Still Widespread

Posted: February 5, 2013

HARRISONBURG — Valley health professionals say the worst flu season in years appears to be on the decline, but the influenza virus continues to be widespread.


Dr. Dale Carroll of Rockingham Memorial Hospital said this year’s influenza outbreak was both serious and early, but the good news is that it seems to be waning.


“The number of hospitalizations has fallen. The number of influenza-like illnesses presented at doctor’s offices has gone down. You put those together, and I think we’ve been through the worst of it now,” said Carroll, chief medical officer and vice president of clinical effectiveness for RMH.


Dr. Douglas Larsen, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District for the Virginia Department of Health, said up to 6 percent of patients at some emergency rooms in the district had flu-like symptoms, compared to last year’s 2 percent.


While local officials say it’s declining, the health department still reported widespread influenza activity throughout the state as of Jan. 26, the most recent data available.


“It’s on the end of the bell curve, but … this year there has been two to three times more people showing up to the emergency department with flu symptoms,” Larsen said. “So, even though it’s on the decline, there’s still more people who have it.”


The Central Shenandoah Health District includes the counties of Rockingham, Augusta, Bath, Highland, and Rockbridge, as well as the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, Lexington and Buena Vista.


An exact number of people affected by the flu is impossible to determine because not all patients who display influenza-like symptoms are tested for the virus.


The flu typically peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches, and fatigue.


Last year saw a fairly mild flu season. Doctors say that not only was the flu more widespread this season but the common strain going around this time makes patients more ill.


“If you get sick with this one, you’ll be hurting for five to seven days,” Larsen said, adding that people who haven’t yet gotten vaccinated should.


Larsen said people should take common sense steps to prevent the spread of influenza, such as frequent hand washing or use of antibacterial hand sanitizer and staying away from those who are infected.


Somewhat unusual this year, Carroll said, is that flu season is coinciding the outbreak of another illness: norovirus.


“They’re happening on top of each other,” he said.


Norovirus, which unlike influenza is a year-round virus, is often called the stomach flu, Carroll said, but that’s a misnomer. Influenza is a respiratory illness, where norovirus is a gastrointestinal sickness.

The most common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain.


Norovirus is primarily spread by contact with contaminated surfaces, Carroll said. Antibacterial hand sanitizers are ineffective against norovirus, he said, so hand washing with hot water and soap is recommended, as are surface cleaning products that kill viruses.


“If somebody’s had a gastrointestinal illness and they think it’s norovirus, they need to be real compulsive about cleaning surfaces they touch,” Caroll said.


The incubation period is 12 to 48 hours, with infected people shedding the virus for up to two weeks after experiencing illness, Carroll said.


“If you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick quickly,” he said. “When you do get sick, it’ll last two or three days.”


Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com

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