The flu is hitting earlier this year, and it’s hitting hard.
County health organizations are seeing huge lines for flu shot clinics, with Atlantic County having already distributed 2,000 doses. The demand is so great that Cape May County is in danger of running out of vaccine.
“I guess because of the hysteria with the flu, we had 240 people show up” at the last flu clinic before Friday, said Kevin Thomas, health officer for Cape May County. “It was surprising to see so many people.”
After giving out about another 140 shots Friday, “We’re going to keep going every Friday until we run out of vaccine,” Thomas said. “The way we’re going, we may only have two to three weeks left.”
The county has seen a 10 percent increase in flu-related illnesses at county emergency departments over the last two weeks, a trend consistent with flu outbreaks nationwide.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that the flu was “widespread” in 47 states as of Jan. 5, and Google.org’s flu project — which uses metrics to track flu- and flu-related searches to determine which areas are seeing the most activity — listed New Jersey as one of 42 states showing “intense” flu activity as of Thursday. Flu-related Google searches are also at the highest point they’ve ever been in the last six years.
Nationally, 20 children have died from the flu, including a 14-year-old boy in Ocean County and an 8-month-old girl in Camden County, state Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said — though she stressed tthat both patients had underlying medical conditions making them more susceptible to the flu.
The two child deaths in New Jersey took place on Nov. 11 and Dec. 1, respectively, Leusner said. “So these deaths did not just happen.”
There is no running tally of adult deaths, but the CDC estimates that the flu kills about 24,000 people in an average year.
“As far as schools go, there have been increases in school absences,” Thomas said. “(But) in nursing homes, you don’t see any outbreak in flu-related symptoms. The good thing is that the flu vaccine itself is fairly representative of what is circulating out in the county. If you get a flu shot, you should be fairly immune.”
At AtlantiCare Medical Center the volume of flu-related visits is three times greater than last year’s peak in mid-February, said Gemma Downhamcq, an infection prevention epidemiologist.
“Last year, it was a moderate outbreak of flu,” said AtlantiCare Chief of Emergency Services Thomas Brabsoncq. “This year, it’s early and very significant.”
Since the week of Dec. 10, AtlantiCare Urgent Care locations have seen an increase in patients of more than nine percent — most of which, said spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta, was due to people experiencing flu-like symptoms.
Once someone is identified as having possible flu-like symptoms, Brabson said, the first thing to do is to isolate them and prevent further infection, which includes a mask and hand sanitizer. Treatment at that point is mainly minimizing symptoms, including coughs, sore throats and sinus problems.
Downham stressed that the vaccine appears to be effective against the strains circulating in the region — though Brabson cautioned that the area does draw many people from other parts of the country.
“With the number of visitors you see in Atlantic City, you still have a real risk that somebody may bring in a strain from an outside area,” Brabson said. “There’s always an outside chance because we have such a large tourist population.”
Barbara Juzaitiscq, Shore Medical Center administrative director of care management, said that the prevention through vaccinations is vitally important. As to why people would not have gotten flu shots already, Juzaitis blamed misinformation.
“People thought you could get sick from the flu shot,” she said. “But studies have come out in the past couple years that show you’re not getting sick from the flu shot, you’re getting sick because you were going to get sick anyway.”
On Friday, CDC officials said a recent study of more than 1,100 people concluded the current flu vaccine is 62 percent effective. That means the average vaccinated person is 62 percent less likely to get a case of flu that’s bad enough to require a trip to the doctor, compared to people who don’t get the vaccine.
Atlantic County has already distributed 2,000 doses of flu vaccine, said Health Director Pat Diamondcq, and will continue to do so until supplies last.
At the county flu shot clinic in Northfield on Thursday cq morning, the early surge of vaccine-seekers had faded by 10 a.m., when Patti and Jane Kirwancq of Somers Point received their shots, prompted by visiting their mother in Shore Medical Center
“Shore is inundated with flu patients,” Patti Kirwan said. “Not a bed to be found. (Someone there) advised me to get a flu shot.”
“Usually I get mine in November,” Jane Kirwan said. “But I started seeing it in the news and became more aware of it.”
Added Patti, “It hurts, though. My arm’s a little sore.”
Dennis and Shelley Funkcq, of Linwood, had a good reason for getting their shots.
“I have grandchildren,” Shelley said. “And everybody’s getting sick.”
She was still a little concerned, though, even as she prepared to be vaccinated.
“Last year I got a flu shot,” she said. “And I still got sick.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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