Hawaii continues to dodge severe flu outbreak

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Chad Shibuya, director of infection control at Hilo Medical Center, opens a new box of flu shots Friday at the hospital.

It remains unclear if Hawaii will avoid severe, widespread influenza that has affected the mainland this season.

“It is still, unfortunately, way too early to say,” state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said in a Thursday telephone interview. “I hate to try to predict flu because nobody can predict flu.”

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The latest state Department of Health data shows 223 adults have died of influenza and its complications since the start of the current influenza season.

“Our emergency room has been extremely busy seeing a number of people coming in for the flu,” said Chad Shibuya, director of infection control at Hilo Medical Center.

In December, the hospital reported 99 confirmed cases of flu. In January, there were 170 cases. But in February, there have been 130 cases so far.

“So it seems to be decreasing a little bit, right now,” Shibuya said.

Gathering flu data is an inexact science because it takes time for reports to come in, only a portion of flu cases get sent for laboratory confirmation and many people who get sick never seek medical care.

In Week 6 of the flu season, so far there have been 1,592 total deaths in the state from all causes, meaning influenza and its complications were responsible for 14 percent of all deaths in the state during that time.

“It’s been relatively comparable to the historical baseline,” Park said. That baseline is determined as an average of the previous five seasons.

Flu-related death does not necessarily mean that the flu itself killed the person.

It means that the individual had an influenza infection. That infection can put the person at risk for secondary bacterial infections, sepsis or exacerbations of chronic illnesses such as asthma.

It appears the mainland might have reached its influenza peak, Park said.

But, she said, “we know from experience that means Hawaii isn’t necessarily out of the woods. To this point we have not seen as heavy activity as they’ve seen on the mainland.”

A “patchwork” of flu activity has been reported around the state, Park said, with some health providers quite busy treating patients with influenza-like ailments and others not seeing as many cases.

Hawaii has been fortunate to have zero pediatric deaths — unlike the Mainland where more than 80 kids have died because of flu this season.

Park said it’s hard to know if Hawaii’s high childhood vaccination rate against influenza — one of the top three states in the country — is the reason there have been no flu deaths in children.

She said it’s unusual to see childhood deaths from flu, except sometimes among infants. Very elderly or very young are normally most at risk, as are pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions.

“Fortunately, knock on wood, for Hawaii we have rarely seen pediatric deaths from the flu,” Park said.

Mumps

Park also discussed the ongoing mumps outbreak in the state.

“I don’t want to jinx this,” she said. “But it does appear that the numbers are just starting to slow down. But, unfortunately, we are not out of the woods.”

A steady increase in numbers continues. As of Thursday, the state has seen 884 confirmed mumps cases, including three on Maui, 49 on Kauai, 127 on Hawaii Island and 705 in the city and county of Honolulu.

“We know this virus likes to be transmitted in a crowded situation,” Park said. “All of you folks on the neighbor islands can be really happy that you’re rural because that probably is the best protection.”

It’s not too late to get vaccinated against either mumps or influenza, she said. Just call ahead to make sure the place you plan to get vaccinated has stock on hand.

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“It’s always appropriate to wash your hands and to keep your germs to yourself,” Park said. “And, if you’re sick, stay home.”

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.