Flu outbreak seen in Southwestern Pennsylvania

  • By Jacob Betzner

    Staff writer

January 5, 2013
Infection control nurse Laura Walker administers a flu vaccine to Southwest Regional Medical Center employee Pam Carroll. - Photo courtesy of Southwest Regional Medical Center

Runny nose. Scratchy throat. All symptoms point to flu season.

Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health showed widespread influenza activity during the final week of 2012, carrying over into the start of 2013, and reported nearly 1,000 more cases of the flu compared to the previous week, approximately 100 more flu-related hospitalizations and three more flu-related deaths.

The outbreak filled local hospitals with sick patients looking for relief. Washington, Greene and Fayette counties combined to account for 5.1 percent, or 364, of all 7,181 flu cases in the state from the beginning of October until the end of the year.

State doctors attributed nearly 10 percent of outpatient doctor visits to influenza-like symptoms, nearly three times the baseline of 2.4 percent.

Dr. Brenda Walther, director of the emergency room at Monongahela Valley Hospital, said the number of flu-related patients started increasing over the past three weeks.

“We’ve had an increasing flu surge in the area,” Walther said. “And I don’t think it’s peaked yet.”

Walther said the severity and impact of the flu varies from year to year, noting a relatively mild flu season last year.

The Department of Health develops the flu vaccine annually, basing the three-strain vaccination on projections of the most likely strains. Walther believes the vaccine to be mostly effective, and the best preventive measure for avoiding the flu, but said an unexpected strain sometimes develops, making people sick despite the vaccination.

Besides a flu shot, Walther recommends avoiding contact with sick individuals and maintaining good hygiene practices.

Dr. Mark Henzes of Southwest Regional Medical Center in Waynesburg echoed Walther’s observations of increased numbers of flu patients.

“(The number) is pretty typical for this time of year, but I’d say heavier than we expected,” Henzes said.

Henzes expects the number to stay about the same through the rest of flu season. He recommends individuals experiencing high fever, body aches, coughing and a sore throat to visit a family physician or a nearby emergency room as a secondary option.

Dr. P.S. Martin of Canonsburg General Hospital said the spread of the flu virus depends heavily on the weather.

“If it’s colder outside, we spend more time inside, which creates a larger risk for spreading,” Martin said.

Martin suggests everyone, especially children and senior citizens and individuals suffering from diabetes, heart disease and respiratory issues including asthma, COPD, emphysema or a history of pneumonia, seek a flu shot. Medication needs to be introduced within the first 48 hours to be most effective. Most insurances cover both the flu shot and swabs to test for the flu.

Flu season typically peaks in late January or early February, but sometimes continues into the spring months.

To avoid catching the flu, use preventive measures and consult a doctor if symptoms worsen. Then just wait for temperatures to rise, putting an end to flu season until next year.



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