Flu Hits Nebraska Early And Often
January 23rd, 2013
The 2012-2013 flu season is in full swing in Nebraska. It struck earlier than usual, and is sending around 500 Nebraskans a week to the doctor. The flu has been linked to at least six deaths in the state. However, the Department of Health and Human Services said there may be hope ahead.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/1-23-13-NET.mp3]
On a typical Monday morning at Grand Island Senior High School, the bell rang in the halls, alerting students it was time to report to class.
Hundreds of teens rushed to their next lesson, but in the nurseâ€™s office around half a dozen students looked for a place to rest, either on cots or in chairs.
The students couldnâ€™t make it to class because of headaches, body aches, sore throats, or fever.
Jill Foltz has been a nurse with Grand Island Public Schoolâ€™s for 27 years. She said seeing sick students during flu season is nothing new, however this season is different.
â€œIt does vary from year to year on the symptoms and even the timing,â€ Foltz said. â€œI can remember years ago it would always start around Thanksgiving time, and then we have years like last year when we virtually saw very little or none. I know this year we kind of had an early start.
Foltz said the week leading up to Christmas break saw the highest number of students coming down with the flu, which means more students were out of school.
Foltz explained during flu season, GISH is more apt to send students home when they have flu-like symptoms.
â€œBecause thatâ€™s the key,â€ Foltz said. â€œGet them home, get them out of the crowds.â€
Sending sick students home can put their families at a higher risk of contracting influenza, which means more people going to the doctor.
Amanda Thom is a family nurse practitioner and partial owner of Hastings Convenient Care. Like GISH, Thom said the weeks of Christmas and New Years were the busiest.
Thom said at that time, the clinic was full of people infected with influenza. She said many of those patients either couldnâ€™t get in to see their primary care physician, or were in from out of town to see family.
â€œItâ€™s kind of slowing down,â€ Thom said. â€œThat could be because weâ€™re planning ahead better. Weâ€™re more prepared. Weâ€™re in the mode of seeing patients, what to look for, screening, that type of thing.â€
The spread of influenza in Grand Island and Hastings is following both a state and national trend.
Dr. Tom Safranek is the state epidemiologist for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. From his office in downtown Lincoln, what he called the â€œground zeroâ€ for flu monitoring, Safranek and his staff track the number of reported flu cases, and make recommendations based on the data collected.
â€œI would say, this is a bad year. Weâ€™re seeing high numbers, and weâ€™re seeing that itâ€™s what we call virulent. Itâ€™s making people pretty sick,â€ Safranek said. â€œItâ€™s a pretty nasty bug and when people get it, they say, ‘I feel like I just got hit by a bus.'”
DHHS works with 86 labs around the state to track influenza. According to Safranek, Nebraskaâ€™s flu season appeared to be peaking in the first part of January, but it was still sending about 500 people a week to the doctor. That put Nebraska, along with 46 other states, in the highest category of flu activity according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to Safranek, in addition to the old standbys of washing your hands and avoiding sick people, the best way to protect yourself from the flu is through vaccination. Although he was quick to point out even thatâ€™s not foolproof.
â€œ62 percent efficacy. [The vaccine] reduces your chance (of getting sick) by 62 percent,â€ Safranek explained. â€œWe would love it if it was 100 percent. There are few vaccines-the childhood vaccines- theyâ€™re upwards of 90 percent effective.
â€œWe would love for the scientists and researchers who develop vaccines to find a flu vaccine thatâ€™s that effective,â€ Safranek said. â€œWeâ€™re not there yet.â€
According to Safranek, if a vaccinated person does contract influenza, their symptoms wonâ€™t be as severe and shouldnâ€™t last as long, which he added should be good news to employers.
The CDC estimates employers spend around $10 billion a year on sick employees through insurance payouts and doctor visits. Employers lose another $1 billion to lost productivity because employees simply arenâ€™t working. Safranek said he hopes the economic loss will encourage more employers to provide free flu vaccinations to their employees.
Thatâ€™s precisely what Amanda Thom did for her employees at Hastings Convenient Care. Thom said while some employees did get sick despite being vaccinated, the benefits outweigh the costs.
â€œAs an employer, you want your employees to be able to work,â€ Thom said. â€œYou want them to take care of themselves, be healthy to take care of their families, our patients, etc. So itâ€™s been well worth the amount we pay for the flu vaccination to vaccinate them.â€
Thom said most clinics and doctorâ€™s offices base the number of vaccine doses they order on the number of vaccinations they expect to administer. Since last yearâ€™s flu season was mild in Nebraska, Thom said some health care providers might be out of the vaccines.
If you need a vaccine, however, Thom and Safranek said local pharmacies should still have plenty on hand. They also agreed the sooner you get vaccinated the better, because it takes 14 days for your body to build up immunity.
Also, if the CDC is correct in saying the flu season is currently peaking, you should expect to see fewer people getting sick in the weeks ahead. Which means more people back at work, or in class.
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