LONGMEADOW – Holiday travel, family get-togethers and circulating influenza B viruses generally more dominant later in the season appear to be increasing visits to outpatient providers for symptoms of the highly contagious respiratory illness of flu whose impact has been low in terms of severity to date in the commonwealth.
“We have definitely seen a busy two days with patients coming in for care after the Christmas holiday,” said Nurse Practitioner Jeffrey Hammond of Baystate Health and Wellness Center.
“Many times, what happens is that people might not feel well a couple days before the holiday, but wait until afterwards to get care because they are too busy. Flu is also becoming more prevalent and we are seeing cases on a daily basis along with other viral illnesses.”
Baystate’s nearby Urgent Care Center on Bliss Road was crowded with patients throughout much of the day Friday, many with coughs and sneezes.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s weekly flu report, influenza-like illness activity in the commonwealth that is measured by visits for flu-like symptoms to outpatient providers increased from low to moderate for the week ending Dec. 21.
Influenza-like illness activity has been at or above the national baseline for seven weeks in the country, giving rise to predictions that the season could peak early, though it is too early to predict the season’s severity.
Hospitalization rates for flu complications are similar at this time to recent seasons, according to the CDC, and, according the the Massachusetts DPH, the percent of influenza-associated hospitalizations in Massachusetts as of Dec. 21 is lower than the previous two years in the same week.
Weekly severity, according to the state DPH, is determined by combining three key markers of influenza activity and distribution: influenza-like illness, hospitalizations, and influenza positive test results reported to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Flu has been widespread in Massachusetts, but the level of visits to outpatient providers has varied by regions in the state with the West seeing what is considered a minimal amount of such activity prior to the December holidays with a high level of such activity in the Outer Boston Area.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that so far this season there have been at least 4.6 million flu illnesses, 39,000 hospitalizations and 2,100 deaths from flu.
Flu is widespread in 39 states with influenza-like illness activity high in 25 states, and moderate in six, according to the CDC.
The number of flu-associated pediatric deaths reported to the CDC rose to 22 in the CDC’s latest weekly report.
The annual flu vaccine, recommended for anyone six months and older, protects against both influenza A and B viruses that are most responsible for the seasonal outbreaks in humans.
The viruses can mutate, that is change, which is why the vaccine does not always provide full protection against circulating influenza viruses but does help to ease symptoms of the flu in those infected.
Nationally, B/Victoria viruses are most common, followed by A(H1N1), the virus that caused the pandemic of 2009.
According to the CDC, influenza B/Victoria viruses are the most commonly reported influenza viruses among children age 0-4 years, with 46 percent of reported viruses, and 5-24 years, with 57 percent of reported viruses, while A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses are the most commonly reported influenza viruses among persons 25-64 years, with 41 percent of reported viruses.
Among adults aged 65 years of age and older, approximately equal proportions of influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 and A(H3N2) viruses, with 38 percent and 37 percent, respectively, have been reported.
The Massachusetts DPH report said more influenza B than influenza A positive specimens have been reported by hospitals and outpatient facilities in the state so far this season.
According to the CDC, nearly 100 percent of the flu viruses tested this season proved susceptible to the four FDA-approved antiviral medications prescribed to help ease flu symptoms in addition to the annual vaccine.
Flu viruses are spread easily by infected people coughing or sneezing and they can survive for a time on surfaces, like door handles, which can lead to further upper respiratory infections among the population as individuals touch contaminated surfaces and then touch their mouth or nose.
According to the CDC, people with flu are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins and can be contagious 24 hours before the onset of symptoms.
Most people with mild symptoms recover from the flu on their own with such measures as rest and staying hydrated.
Common symptoms including muscle aches, fatigue and sore throat.
However, influenza can lead to complications, like pneumonia, that are sometimes fatal, particularly in the very young, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions.
People with flu are advised to stay home to avoid spreading their illness, except to seek medical care if concerned.
Antiviral medications if prescribed early can help ease symptoms and shorten the course of the illness.
Good hygiene such as frequent hand washing with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds and covering one’s mouth when coughing can help reduce the spread of influenza.