Flu Hits Nebraska Early and Often

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the flu activity in Nebraska as "widespread." Health experts at the state and local level urge people to be vaccinated against the virus. (Graphic Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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January 23, 2013 - 6:30am

The 2012 to 2013 flu season is in full swing in Nebraska. It struck earlier than usual, and is sending around 500 Nebraskans a week to the doctor. The flu has been linked to at least six deaths in the state. However, the Department of Health and Human Services said there may be hope ahead.


On a typical Monday morning at Grand Island Senior High School, the bell rang in the halls, alerting students it was time to report to class.

Hundreds of teens rushed to their next lesson, but in the nurse’s office around half a dozen students looked for a place to rest, either on cots or in chairs.

The students couldn’t make it to class because of headaches, body aches, sore throats, or fever.

Jill Foltz has been a nurse with Grand Island Public School’s for 27 years. She said seeing sick students during flu season is nothing new, however this season is different.

“It does vary from year to year on the symptoms and even the timing,” Foltz said. “I can remember years ago it would always start around Thanksgiving time, and then we have years like last year when we virtually saw very little or none. I know this year we kind of had an early start.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Grand Island Senior High School nurse Jill Foltz discussing the options on how to deal with being sick with a student. Foltz said this flu season hasn't been particularly bad for GISH, but she admitted not every flu-related absense gets reported.

Foltz said the week leading up to Christmas break saw the highest number of students coming down with the flu, which means more students were out of school.

Foltz explained during flu season, GISH is more apt to send students home when they have flu-like symptoms.

“Because that’s the key,” Foltz said. “Get them home, get them out of the crowds.”

Sending sick students home can put their families at a higher risk of contracting influenza, which means more people going to the doctor.

Amanda Thom is a family nurse practitioner and partial owner of Hastings Convenient Care. Like GISH, Thom said the weeks of Christmas and New Years were the busiest.

Thom said at that time, the clinic was full of people infected with influenza. She said many of those patients either couldn’t get in to see their primary care physician, or were in from out of town to see family.

“It’s kind of slowing down,” Thom said. “That could be because we’re planning ahead better. We’re more prepared. We’re in the mode of seeing patients, what to look for, screening, that type of thing.”

The spread of influenza in Grand Island and Hastings is following both a state and national trend.

Dr. Tom Safranek is the state epidemiologist for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. From his office in downtown Lincoln, what he called the “ground zero” for flu monitoring, Safranek and his staff track the number of reported flu cases, and make recommendations based on the data collected.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Dr. Tom Safranek is the State Epidemiologist for the Department of Health and Human Services. From his office in downtown Lincoln, Safranek and his team monitor the spread of the influenza virus and make sugggestions on how best to deal with the illness.

Courtesy Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

This graph displays the results of infuenza testing over the course of three flu seasons, from labs all across Nebraska. DHHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor what strains of the influenza virus are circulating, and then use their findings to build the vaccine for upcoming flu seasons.

 

“I would say, this is a bad year. We’re seeing high numbers, and we’re seeing that it’s what we call virulent. It’s making people pretty sick,” Safranek said. “It’s a pretty nasty bug and when people get it, they say, 'I feel like I just got hit by a bus.'"

DHHS works with 86 labs around the state to track influenza. According to Safranek, Nebraska’s flu season appeared to be peaking in the first part of January, but it was still sending about 500 people a week to the doctor. That put Nebraska, along with 46 other states, in the highest category of flu activity according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to Safranek, in addition to the old standbys of washing your hands and avoiding sick people, the best way to protect yourself from the flu is through vaccination. Although he was quick to point out even that’s not foolproof.

“62 percent efficacy. [The vaccine] reduces your chance (of getting sick) by 62 percent,” Safranek explained. “We would love it if it was 100 percent. There are few vaccines-the childhood vaccines- they’re upwards of 90 percent effective.

“We would love for the scientists and researchers who develop vaccines to find a flu vaccine that’s that effective,” Safranek said.  “We’re not there yet.”

According to Safranek, if a vaccinated person does contract influenza, their symptoms won’t be as severe and shouldn’t last as long, which he added should be good news to employers.

The CDC estimates employers spend around $10 billion a year on sick employees through insurance payouts and doctor visits. Employers lose another $1 billion to lost productivity because employees simply aren’t working. Safranek said he hopes the economic loss will encourage more employers to provide free flu vaccinations to their employees.

That’s precisely what Amanda Thom did for her employees at Hastings Convenient Care. Thom said while some employees did get sick despite being vaccinated, the benefits outweigh the costs.

“As an employer, you want your employees to be able to work,” Thom said. “You want them to take care of themselves, be healthy to take care of their families, our patients, etc. So it’s been well worth the amount we pay for the flu vaccination to vaccinate them.”

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Amanda Thom is a family nurse practitioner and partial owner of Hastings Convenient Care. Thom said the best way to protect against getting the flu is through vaccination.

Thom said most clinics and doctor’s offices base the number of vaccine doses they order on the number of vaccinations they expect to administer. Since last year’s flu season was mild in Nebraska, Thom said some health care providers might be out of the vaccines.

If you need a vaccine, however,  Thom and Safranek said local pharmacies should still have plenty on hand. They also agreed the sooner you get vaccinated the better, because it takes 14 days for your body to build up immunity.

Also, if the CDC is correct in saying the flu season is currently peaking, you should expect to see fewer people getting sick in the weeks ahead, which means more people back at work or in class.

For more information about the 2012 to 2013 flu season, click here

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