Tri-State flu outbreak slows, data similar to national trend

CINCINNATI - This season's flu outbreak is slowing in the Tri-State, tracking new national figures released last week indicating flu activity nationwide is leveling off.

Centers for Disease Control data indicates the number of positive influenza tests dropped to fewer than 12,000 cases nationally for the week ending Jan. 19. That's a drop of 4,702 from the previous week.

So far this flu season, 1,922 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported in Ohio as of Jan. 17, compared to 86 for the same time last year, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Typically, flu-related hospitalizations in Ohio spike in March with a two-year average of 200 patients admitted to the hospital, according to the ODH.

"We did not have an overwhelming number of flu patients admitted into the intensive care unit," said University of Cincinnati Medical Center Dr. Madhuri Sopirala, who has seen three times the number of flu cases compared to last year. "Although, this is a more severe season compared to last year, but it is slowing."

In the region, the percentage of outpatient visits due to influenza-like illnesses dropped the first three weeks of the year, according to Southwest Ohio Sentinel Flu Surveillance maintained by the Hamilton County Board of Health.

But with nearly two months remaining and with extensive flu activity reported in every state, including Ohio, to predict a final impact of the flu in the Tri-State may be a tough task to achieve.

Getting sick workers to stay at home may be easier to say than to do in today's economic environment in which many workers feel compelled to come in to work.

At Casco Manufacturing Solutions, Inc., a certified contract manufacturer specializing in the custom design and production of, sewn, sealed and upholstered products, it's business as usual with absences related to the flu having a negligible affect on business.

"We're a fairly small company," said Rebecca Ginther, director of marketing for the 38-employee business. "We've all been really lucky and healthy."

That was the common refrain among a handful of Tri-State organizations.

Cincinnati Public Schools hasn't experienced unusual flu activity so far this season, either.

"We haven't seen a spike in absenteeism because of the flu," said Janet Walsh, spokesperson for CPS. "We don't have a hard number (of absences) because it hasn't reached the level so far where we have to track the cause for an absence."

At the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the hospital's top official for infection control said the downward trend seen nationwide is also occurring locally.

Sopirala said the hospital received 25 flu cases last year, compared to the 70 already this season with 40 hospitalizations. Total flu cases at UC Medical Center have also slowed the last three weeks, with only eight cases reported from Jan. 14 -20. That's compared to 20 reported from Dec. 31, 2012 to Jan. 6.

"Some people are not sick enough to be admitted, and they are usually sent home and those who are admitted usually have pre-existing conditions that will intensify flu symptoms," Sopirala said.

Data collected from Mercy Health also confirms recent government figures. At both Mercy Health – Fairfield Hospital and Clermont Hospital, people with reported flu-like illnesses and those admitted declined. Only five cases were reported at the Fairfield location and two at the Clermont County location for the week ending Jan. 19.

But managing this season's flu outbreak, and every year's flu outbreak, is contingent on the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. Recommended for every flu season, scientists predict which strains will be circulating among the general population from the previous year or six to nine months later, Sopirala said.

This season's flu vaccine is about 60 percent effective, according to the CDC. Getting people to take the vaccine in low-activity flu seasons is tough because it's perceived as not a big deal. In high-activity season, like this one, some say it's not effective enough.

"It will provide protection, but that's not to say you still won't get the flu, but it will be much less intense," Sopirala said.

Despite the recent decline in reported flu-like illnesses, the unpredictability of the flu season is something to remain cognizant of, Sopirala said.

"It seems like it's slowing down, but you never know," Sopirala said. "Sometimes it could have a second peak or something, but do everything you can and have a high suspicion for flu."

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