Reports of flu continue in a predictably intense season

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 7:36 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Influenza cases in Utah continue to spread, signaling a more intense season than in years past, according to the state health department.

The illness, which requires rest and lots of Kleenex, is taking its toll on workers, and also schoolkids, who are exhibiting higher-than-average rates of absenteeism throughout the state.

"This year, there is definitely a spike compared to last year and the five-year average. There's no question," said Chris Williams, Davis School District spokesman.

Williams said district officials are constantly reminding teachers and students, "if you're sick, stay home because we can't afford to spread any sickness in our schools."

Close to 7 percent of the district's more than 68,000 students were absent the week before Christmas break. Attendance numbers have yet to be calculated for the first full week of the new year, but it is expected to be close to the same, if not worse.

Williams said students know they should conceal coughs in their elbows, use and discard tissues, and wash their hands frequently, but "the best thing anyone can do is just stay home."

In the first week of January, the reported number of cases nearly doubled what was reported from September through December of last year. But some of the new cases were not necessarily new, they just hadn't been previously reported, said Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Valoree Vernon.

"There's a lot of respiratory illness going around right now," she said. "It's not just influenza."

The first week of January, however, saw a slight decrease in flulike illness activity at doctor's offices and clinics statewide.

Vernon said that just because there's been a drop in activity, the season isn't close to being over yet. Typically, the flu season doesn't really take hold until late January, and in 2011-12, illness rates peaked in March.

"The health department is definitely on alert," she said. "We're watching it pretty closely to see what develops over the coming weeks, but with the flu, we never really know. Sometimes it will burn itself out, sometimes it escalates, as with the pandemic year we had."

During 2010, H1N1, also known as swine flu, reared its head mid-season, sending health workers across the nation scrambling for a different version of that year's vaccine to stop rampant spreading of the new virus.

In that year, schools in Davis County saw an average of up to 9 percent absenteeism, Williams said.

So far this season, 233 Utahns have been hospitalized with the H3N2 influenza virus — the current active strain. The strain is a familiar one, but hundreds of people are still reeling from the coughing, sneezing, fever, stuffiness and general malaise brought on by influenza infection.

Roughly 20 percent of those hospitalized in Utah are children, teens or young adults, ages 5 to 64. But the majority of cases are found in those under age 4 and over 65, according to the most recent health department statistics released Wednesday.

Vernon said the flu generally plagues "the very young and the very old," both of which are populations with either less developed or more weakened immune systems.

About 20 percent of those with confirmed cases of influenza had also been vaccinated against the virus, the health department report states.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all individuals get vaccinated against the flu each year, beginning at 6 months of age. It takes about two weeks before an individual is considered immune following vaccination, and "just because you're vaccinated doesn't guarantee you won't get sick," Vernon said.

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