Widespread flu activity was reported by 41 states during the third week of 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, 10 children nationwide died of flu the previous week — a number that doubles the total count of this year’s 2013-2014 flu season to date, raising the toll to 20 pediatric deaths.
During the 2012-2013 flu season, which started early and was especially severe, 169 children died.
This week the flu season reached “epidemic” status because 7.5 percent of all U.S. deaths in the second week of January were due to flu and pneumonia illnesses, surpassing the CDC’s epidemic threshold.
In California, flu deaths doubled to 95 in just one week, up from 45 confirmed the week before, according to the Los Angeles Times. Two of the new deaths occurred in children. Officials said the state is investigating another 50 deaths to determine if flu was a factor.
Adding to concerns about the high level of flu activity is the prevalence of H1N1, or swine flu, which killed 200,000 people worldwide in 2009. Officials said the H1N1 strain has dominated this school year’s flu season.
While the CDC promotes the vaccine as the single best way to prevent seasonal flu, it also recommends the following everyday preventive habits:
1. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
2. Stay home when you are sick.
3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing/sneezing.
4. Wash your hands frequently.
5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
6. Practice other good health habits, such as cleaning and disinfecting common areas, getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of liquids.
In response, health officials in California and other hard-hit states, including Texas and Tennessee, are stressing the importance of flu shots. The vast majority of the newly confirmed patients who died had not received an influenza vaccine, state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez told CBS News. Noting that H1N1 is included in this year's vaccine, Chavez urged all Californians to get a flu shot if they haven’t had one yet.
Shelley Walker, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health, also pressed hold-outs to get the flu vaccine “to be protected throughout the rest of the season.” So far at least 12 people in Middle Tennessee have officially died from complications due to the H1N1 virus, and many more could have died from complications. Walker said the department primarily tracks pediatric and pregnant deaths.
Texas is also experiencing a major outbreak of the flu virus, including H1N1, according to the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), which has reported six pediatric deaths this season. Recently the DSHS issued an “influenza health alert” urging everyone to get their annual flu shot.
The good news is that several schools in Northeast Texas are fighting the spread of the virus and seeing positive results in their student attendance numbers, reported the News-Journal.com.
At Union Grove ISD in rural Upshur County, buses are being fogged with disinfectant spray twice daily.
“We always do our best to keep it a germ-free environment, but certainly during this flu season we are doing more,” said Superintendent Brian Gray, noting that Union Grove, which has 761 students, has stepped up precautions during flu season.
“We have our classrooms on a rotation and are fogging those every night,” he added. “We gave disinfectant to every teacher who is cleaning desks, keyboards and door handles throughout the day.”
Gray said he hasn't seen a noticeable increase in the number of absences since students returned from the winter break.
Sandi Long, a nurse at Spring Hill ISD, reported just a handful more children sick in early January compared to the first few days of the school year in September.
“Every kid that is getting off the bus, when the buses let out, gets their little pump of sanitizer when they walk in the door,” said Long.
Dr. Paul McGaha, director of the 35-county Region 4/5 for the Texas Department of Health, said influenza activity remains high in Texas and the region. “This year, we started earlier with the infection, and more people have been seriously ill than last year,” he stated.
School districts have taken the necessary precautions and many have held steady in attendance rates, including Longview, Tatum and White Oak.