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BLOOMINGTON — The influenza outbreak that began more than a week ago shows no sign of slowing down.

The good news is there have been no more flu deaths in McLean County following the three reported by county Coroner Kathy Davis last week, Davis and Sue Grant, county health department supervisor of community health services, said Wednesday.

But influenza remains widespread throughout Central Illinois and beyond, health professionals said.

"It's here and it's not going to go away quickly," Grant said.

Because tracking flu numbers is not required — except in cases of pediatric deaths and hospital intensive care unit (ICU) admissions — no one knows how many Central Illinoisans have had the flu in recent weeks. But the number has been in the hundreds.

"In the last week, we have had close to 150 positive flu tests through our (OSF HealthCare) PromptCares in Bloomington-Normal alone," said Deb Smith, vice president for nursing and operations at OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center, Bloomington.

"That's a big spike from what we were seeing," Smith said.

Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal has had 90 positive flu tests so far in December, said infection preventionist Laurel Mode.

Advocate Medical Group's Immediate Care facilities in Bloomington-Normal remain "very busy with patients suffering from flu or flu-like symptoms and those with strep throat," said practice manager Jen Erickson.

Illinois Department of Public Health reported that flu is widespread throughout Illinois and 121 people have been admitted to ICUs.

Why flu hit earlier and harder this winter isn't known.

One reason appears to be because the virus that is circulating has mutated, making the flu vaccine less effective, Grant said. That H3N2 virus is associated with more hospitalizations and death, she said.

Another reason is because the spike hit just as families were gathering for Christmas, meaning germs were shared, said Grant and Smith.

However, the extremely cold temperatures of the past few days are keeping some people indoors, which may limit the spread of the virus, Smith said.

Even though many people who have gotten sick did receive a flu shot, medical professionals encourage people who haven't been vaccinated to do so. Even if people get the flu, the vaccine should reduce the duration and intensity of the illness, they said.

"You want to get as much coverage as you can for all the strains that are out there," Smith said.

People who get the flu are sick for at least a week with fever, chills, headache, body aches, fatigue, chest discomfort, sniffles and cough. But the concern is passing the flu to young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems who are at risk for complications, including death.

"Influenza can cause deaths as we've seen," Grant said.

"I've seen it (flu) first hand and it's not a nice thing," Grant said. Her husband, Dan, who got a flu shot, became ill with flu last week, which led to bronchitis, forcing the family to postpone their Christmas celebration.

"It was our first Christmas without Dad — Dad died in October — so sending that text message (postponing the Christmas dinner) was tough," Grant admitted. "But we have a pregnant niece and a nephew who is too young to receive the flu vaccine. It's not worth the risk of spreading the disease."

As holiday celebrations and basketball games continue, health professionals urge people to cover their coughs and sneezes, wash their hands frequently, clean frequently touched surfaces and call their doctor and stay home if they are sick.

"You could be exposing people (to the flu) who have a compromised immune system and you wouldn't know it," Grant said.

"There will be another game, another family get together," Davis said. "You don't want to get immuno-compromised people sick."

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Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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