If you feel like flu season is a never-ending cycle of sick children, parents, co-workers, friends, neighbors and family, behold — the end is in sight (sort of).
State and local health experts say the number of flu cases seems to be declining for the past two weeks, but they warn residents this harsh season could still bring illness in the form of other flu strains in the first few weeks of spring.
“We are starting to see trends suggesting that we’re seeing decreases in flu activity,” said Tina Tan, epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, “but we still have several weeks to go, and it’s important to take preventative measures and do it all year round, because there are other viruses.”
Tan said there has been a noticeable trend in the last two weeks of emergency room department visits and admissions going down, indicating the region is on the other side of peak season.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports also noted the decline but still recorded high activity of flu nationwide. While cases from the H3N2 flu virus seem to be going down, reports show that flu Type B is on the rise, which is normal for the latter half of the season, experts said.
The flu hit the nation, including New Jersey, particularly hard this year. Levels of flu illness reached pandemic proportions and vaccine protection against this year’s widely circulating flu type A H3N2 was weak.
There were 114 flu-related pediatric deaths across the country as of Feb. 24, according to federal reports.
Positive, laboratory-confirmed flu cases in the majority of New Jersey counties were, as of Feb. 24, double or triple the number seen at that time last year, according to state reports.
In Cape May County, there was 20 times the number of confirmed cases that week than in 2017, and county experts said that spike is likely due to more residents seeking professional medical treatment this year over last.
“Some doctor’s offices didn’t have the rapid tests in the past, so they treated based on symptoms, but this season seemed so bad that they’re trying to get more actual numbers with the testing,” said Mary Tighe, assistant director of nursing at the county Health Department.
Cape May County recorded 18 positive flu tests as of Feb. 25, 2017. This year, the number was 365 cases, according to the state Department of Health surveillance reports.
The quadravalent flu vaccine contained killed viruses for H1N1 and H3N2, and although the vaccine was not as effective against those strains, it did decrease the severity of illness.
Vaccine effectiveness is higher for the two remaining dead viruses of flu Type B, which experts predict will appear more in the remaining weeks of flu season into April. People can become sick again if they contract flu type B, especially those who did not get vaccinated this season, experts said.
“We’ll continue to monitor, because usually trends will continue to go down, which is what we expect to see (now), but the flu is unpredictable,” Tan said.
Tighe and the Health Department offered free vaccines to residents at flu clinics earlier in the season but were still offering vaccines throughout the past couple months.
There was an influx of children who needed the vaccine in January so they complied with state law that requires young children to be vaccinated if they attend a childcare center or school, she said.
Because of the hype over the severity of the season, Tighe said parents and other adults who did not get vaccinated in the fall had come into the Health Department seeking flu shots as late as January and February.
Tan said it’s difficult to compare one flu season to another by just looking at the numbers of laboratory confirmed cases, because many people self-treat their flu symptoms and never go to a doctor to confirm a flu case. Providers also are not required to perform rapid tests and report them to the state.
The actual number of people in New Jersey who became sick this season is greater than the state recorded 20,478 cases at the end of February.
“That’s why we look at all others factors, like school absenteeism and emergency department visits to get a better sense of the overall flu burden,” Tan said. “We have a couple more weeks to go, so it’s important to continue practicing hand-washing and good hygiene.”