After a slow start, this year’s flu season is peaking in Massachusetts, crowding hospital waiting rooms and keeping people coughing and sneezing in their homes, office and on trains. Adding to the misery: Widely administered flu vaccines do not fully address new strains of the virus now circulating.
After a slow start, this year’s flu season is peaking in Massachusetts, crowding hospital waiting rooms and keeping people coughing and sneezing in their homes and offices and on trains.
Adding to the misery: Widely administered flu vaccines do not fully address new virus strains that are circulating.
“We’re treating coughs, congestion, fever, sore throats, chills and muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea – we’ve seen it all,” said Dr. John Benanti, chief of the emergency department at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth.
The emergency department there has been extra busy for the past two weeks, with 35 confirmed cases of flu.
“We’ve seen at least a 10 percent increase over last year,” Benanti said. “The very young and the elderly suffer the most and are most at risk. It can be very serious in these ages.”
This has health officials urging prevention as much as ever.
Dr. Alfred DeMaria, assistant commissioner in the state Department of Public Health, recounted something that happened on a morning commuter train.
“A woman coughed into her hand,” he said. “That’s not really the correct way to cough, because someone can then stand up and touch the pole. We ask people to cough into their sleeve or use a handkerchief.”
Even though flu shots may not fully protect against new, mutated strains of the flu virus, DeMaria, director of the state Bureau of Communicable Diseases, still urges people to get them.
“You’ll get a milder virus, and it’s well worth it,” he said.
The flu vaccine immunizes people against two strains of the A virus and against the B virus.
“All three have had some changes this year – the virus is constantly changing , being selected for success against our immune system,” DeMaria said.
Next year’s vaccine will provide protection against three new strains.
There have been 677 confirmed cases of flu in the state’s southeast region so far this year, compared to 458 at this time a year ago. The southeast region is ahead of the North Shore, where the flu first appeared this year, and is second only to the three combined regions of Boston.
Statewide, there have been 2,984 cases, compared to 1,958 at this time last year.
About 125 lab specimens of suspected flu cases have been sent to the state, compared to 48 last year. Samples are only sent in selected cases.
“Over the past three weeks, we’ve seen an acceleration in the number of lab tests confirming the virus, and there are thousands of cases we don’t hear about, where people just get sick and stay home,” DeMaria said.
Two health-care institutions in the southeast region have reported clusters of flu cases to the state. The cases were not identified, but nursing homes are often included in
such clusters. Four facilities have reported clusters in Boston.
Every year, a relatively small number of flu sufferers are hospitalized for complications such as pneumonia, asthma and other chronic illnesses.
At Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the number of patients admitted for the flu jumped from 18 in January to 36 in February. Quincy Medical Center has admitted 11 patients diagnosed with flu in the last 60 days, compared to four in the same time period last year.
At Milton Hospital, there has been a sharp increase in flu cases this month. In January, 37 patients were diagnosed and treated; as of Feb. 14, 32 patients had already been treated this month.
“We’ve had a high volume of patients overall, and some of that is due to the flu,” spokesman Jason Bouffard said Thursday.
Caritas Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton has seen 96 flu cases this year, and 70 of those were seen in February, a spokesman said.
All of the hospitals said waits are always longer in emergency departments and clinics during January and February than at other times of year.
“It’s flu season” was a common response.
Sue Scheible may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catching the flu is nothing to sneeze at
Who’s gotten the flu?2,984 Recent flu cases reported statewide, compared to 1,958 at the same time last year 677 Confirmed flu cases in the state’s southeast region, compared to 458 a year ago 35 Confirmed flu cases at South Shore Hospital the last two weeks 32 Patients treated for the flu at Milton Hospital in the first half of February, compared to 37 in all of January 11 Flu patients admitted to Quincy Medical Center in the last 60 days, 7 more than in the same period last year
Sources: State Department of Public Health, local hospitals