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Health experts: Get vaccinated against flu now

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    LPN Kanoe Arai gives Rayson Noguchi a flu shot Wednesday at the Kaiser Permanente Hilo Clinic.

Health experts are imploring Hawaii residents to get vaccinated against influenza to prevent it from spreading rapidly like it has on the mainland.

“We are seeing an increase in the incidence of flu across Hawaii from prior years,” said Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Hawaii, a trade organization for hospitals.

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Since October, the start of the current flu season in Hawaii, “there have been a total of 161 deaths caused by pneumonia and/or influenza. All of these deaths were adults above the age of 18,” said Anna Koethe, state Department of Health spokeswoman.

In that time, flu hasn’t reached widespread prevalence in the state. That might be changing.

“On the ground, the numbers are showing an uptick” on Hawaii Island, said Hilo Medical Center spokeswoman Elena Cabatu on Wednesday.

She said statistics regarding emergency room visits collected by the hospital’s infection control department show 22 cases of influenza in October, 40 in November, 99 in December and “with eight days left to go, 133 in January — that’s a lot.”

This week, Kaiser Permanente Hawaii, worried flu will spread in the state, is sending automated voice messages to Hawaii Island policyholders pleading with those who haven’t already been vaccinated to get a shot.

Thirty children died on the mainland from influenza and its complications between Oct. 16 and Jan. 13, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu season has been unusually active and is widespread in every state except Hawaii, according to the CDC.

Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Lott said Hawaii residents still have time to “bend the curve” of the flu outbreak and keep it more tame here.

Immunity takes two weeks once a person gets an anti-flu injection, Lott said. That’s typically about how long it takes for flu to become widespread in Hawaii once it’s widespread on the mainland.

Bay Clinic Medical Director Chrissy Capati, a family physician, said so far Bay Clinic hasn’t sent any patients to the hospital because of flu. She’s hopeful to keep it that way by getting patients vaccinated.

“It’s scary what can happen to you,” she said.

Capati said Bay Clinic might order more vaccine because patient demand has been so high. Patients have been seeking vaccinations more often and are increasingly willing to get vaccinated when offered.

Capati emphasized flu happens all year in Hawaii, rather than just during the mainland’s flu season, which is October to May.

Dr. Hart Miller, medical director at Puna Community Medical Center, said getting vaccinated against flu is like wearing a seat belt. It won’t protect a passenger from all injuries, but it will improve the chances of survival.

Similarly, vaccination doesn’t prevent all forms of influenza. But it does decrease the risk of death and complications, Miller said.

“Other precautions, such as using good hand-washing practices, staying home when sick and covering coughs and sneezes are also crucial steps we can all take to protect ourselves and prevent the spread of influenza in our community,” Koethe said.

Patients who seek medical care quickly can be prescribed antiviral medicine.

According to the CDC, Hawaii is one of the states with the highest vaccination rates against influenza: 51-56 percent of the population was vaccinated in 2016-17, the latest year with statistics available.

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Lott said there’s plenty of vaccine available and shots can be obtained at the family doctor’s office, an urgent care clinic or at a pharmacy.

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