Flu season kicks off with uptick in cases at HMC

  • Tandy Newsome demonstrates how she would give a flu shot in March at the Hawaii Island Family Health Center in Hilo Medical Center. (Tribune-Herald file photo)

Hilo Medical Center is starting to see an increase in flu cases, but hospital officials anticipate flu activity won’t peak until early next year.

According to data provided by the hospital, there were 101 cases of influenza B in September, compared to 28 in August and three in July.

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From Oct. 1-8, 26 cases of the same strain of the virus have been confirmed.

Tandy Newsome, quality director and infection preventionist at HMC, said most flu patients are individuals coming into the emergency department, getting a flu test done, “and we’re sending them home.”

There have been very few admissions for the flu, she said.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the throat, nose and sometimes lungs.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can cause mild to severe illnesses and can even lead to death.

The flu usually comes on suddenly, and those who have the flu might see symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting, the CDC states.

The flu also can lead to complications like bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and worsening chronic medical conditions like heart failure, asthma or diabetes.

There are two main types of flu virus — A and B. Type B is the predominant strain currently seen at HMC.

HMC had just three and five cases of influenza type A in August and September, respectively, and one reported in early October.

According to the CDC, flu activity often begins to increase in October and November and typically peaks between December and February, but can last as late as May.

Flu activity in the country is low, but flu season is approaching, the CDC said.

“I would say, keep in mind on the mainland there’s a regular flu season, and in Hawaii, we tend to be behind the mainland, but we can see flu almost any time of the year,” Newsome said.

State Department of Health spokeswoman Anna Koethe said the department can’t break statewide flu numbers out by county during the season.

“As far as trends go, it’s still relatively early in the traditional flu season, so there’s not much we can see at this point from the data,” she said. “It’s also difficult to know the scope or severity of the flu activity while we’re in the midst of a particular period and can only assess the situation afterward.”

According to Newsome, there is nothing abnormal about the number of flu cases HMC has seen in recent months. The numbers look “pretty much like past years.”

Watching how mainland trends are developing, she said HMC will “probably see a little uptick as we get into October,” she said, but the largest number of cases will likely come in January and February.

Newsome said “the best prevention for the flu is to get the flu shot,” which is different every year based on the strain predicted, as well as “stay away from people who are sick and wash your hands.”

The CDC recommends everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine.

HMC is also attempting to get more of its staff vaccinated against the flu.

Last year, Newsome said 85% of staff were vaccinated, and this year, the hospital is “shooting for 90%”

“The more people who get vaccinated in our community, the fewer cases of flu we’ll see — as simple as that.”

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For those who are interested, the DOH has a “vaccine locator,” which can be found online at health.hawaii.gov/docd/vaccines-immunizations/vaccine-locators.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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