“Severe season” for flu in area — still time to get the vaccine

A boost in flu-related illnesses across the state — and the prevalence of a particularly severe flu virus — are causing concern that this year’s flu season could be a long, tough one in Washington state.

The findings are adding urgency to health officials’ call for people to get the readily available vaccinations, which so far appear to be a good match for the strains of flu viruses being seen.

“Get the vaccination. We’ll have flu with us for quite a few more weeks,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, epidemiologist for the state Health Department.

Three deaths have been attributed to the flu so far, but officials fear the number could grow sharply in the next few weeks, based on the cases being seen in hospital emergency rooms.

In the week ending Dec. 29, nearly 400 patients were treated for flu-like symptoms — twice the number from the previous week — in a sampling of 30 Western Washington emergency rooms.

“We may be in for a severe season for infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The indicators are pointing that way,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, commmunicable-disease chief for Public Health — Seattle & King County.

Reports of the flu have been increasing across the country. Health officials say that in many areas, even though the flu season has just begun, the number of cases seen so far are what typically might occur in the peak of a moderately severe flu season.

Duchin said estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate there are between 20 and 300 flu-related deaths each year in King County alone, and, he said, this year’s outbreak may be on the high end.

There is no firm count for the number of people in Washington who get influenza because there is no requirement for cases to be reported. Flu often combines with — and aggravates — other illnesses, such as pneumonia, and may not be listed as a cause of death.

As a result, the number of confirmed flu fatalities is far lower than what health officials believe the number of flu-related deaths actually is.

Officially, an average of two children and 25 adults die each year in Washington in lab-confirmed cases of influenza, said Julie Graham, spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

The three patients who have died in confirmed flu cases this season are two people in King County — a man in his 80s and a woman in her 70s — and a boy under 12 in Pierce County.

In Snohomish County, health officials say hospitals in that county have treated 52 people with confirmed flu cases this season, compared to just four at this time last year.

Suzanne Pate, spokeswoman for the Snohomish Health District, said one concern is that the number of cases could rise within the next week, now that students are back in the classroom, where they can contract illnesses from other students, and bring the germs home.