With influenza activity already high across the country and in Kendall County more than halfway through the season, local health officials are reminding residents of who is most at risk of getting sick and what preventative measures can be taken to help limit the spread of the illness.
During a Feb. 4 County Board meeting, Dr. Amaal Tokars, executive director of the Kendall County Health Department, said while it is important to be aware of what's going on with the spread of the novel coronoavirus, it also has been a significant influenza season in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there have been at least 22 million illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths from the flu. Common symptoms for the flu include fever, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat and muscle aches.
According to the CDC, the hospitalization rates remain similar to this time during recent seasons. However, those rates in children and young adults are higher than at this time in recent seasons and there have been 78 total pediatric deaths so far this season.
“This is the highest pediatric death rate we’ve had in influenza in the United States since the CDC has been counting, and that’s in the past 17 years,” Tokars said.
Dr. Patrick Bilskey, a convenient care doctor through Rush Copley Medical Group who specializes in family medicine, said the recent number of cases hasn't been the worst he's seen in his career – notably the H1N1 virus that made its rounds in 2009 – but it's been noticeably higher this time around than the last six flu seasons by his observations. Out of the the 40 or 50 patients daily that come through his clinic at 1901 West Galena Boulevard in Aurora, he said, about two-thirds of those patients have come in for influenza lately.
“So we’re definitely right in the crux of the season right now,” Bilskey said.
Dr. Anastasia Khoubaeva, an emergency medicine doctor for Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich, said there hasn't been that much of a difference in the number of cases that have come through the hospital. However, she said, the number of cases peaked about a month earlier than they did last season.
Khoubaeva said the populations that are the most vulnerable to the flu virus include the elderly, children two years old and younger, and those with compromised immune systems who have a high risk of getting secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. She said supportive treatment for those vulnerable groups would include taking the antiviral medication oseltamivir, or brand name Tamiflu.
“For those people, it’s important to come in early because that medication has to start within the first 24 hours in order to take full effect,” Khoubaeva said.
Khoubaeva said it takes two to four days for symptoms of the illness to appear after exposure. She said people are contagious one day before symptoms appear and are contagious for five to seven days total.
“So you have to be completely symptom free to not be infectious for the people around you,” Khoubaeva said.
To that point, the recommended time off from work or school is usually up to a week, Bilskey said.
Tokars said she wanted to remind the public to stay home for at least 24 hours after fever is gone without use of fever reducing medicine.
“That does not mean don’t use fever reducing medicine," Tokars said. "It means that if you just use fever-reducing medicine to bring down the fever, remember that you’re still contagious.”
Tokars said the flu can spread very quickly that way and the fevers also have been really difficult to get rid of. She said she wants to remind the public to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and to reduce close contact with those who are sick.
Bilskey said he also wanted to stress the importance of getting the flu vaccine. While it isn't 100% effective and doesn't guarantee a patient wouldn't get sick, he said, it "does decrease your chances that you will get influenza” and the symptoms would be less severe after getting the vaccine.
“So there’s always a benefit to getting vaccinated,” Bilskey said.