Health officials were happy to announce new statewide statistics Tuesday that seem to indicate the worst of the flu season is over.
“Our numbers statewide decreased this week and last week,” said Kait Gillis, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “We’re hoping this indicates that the flu systems have peaked for this season.”
The Department of Health released its statistics for the week of Jan. 20 through Jan. 26, showing a moderate reduction in new influenza cases for the second straight week. There’s a significant chance that the season had peaked during the first week of 2013.
The report shows 3.5 percent of all doctor visits last week were related to influenza, down from a high of 6 percent three weeks ago. There were 60 confirmed cases in Washington County this past week.
“On the whole, there’s been significantly less cases of influenza than we have seen in the past few weeks, but they’re still trickling in,” said Dr. Robert E. Buckner II, who works in emergency medicine at Canonsburg General Hospital.
Out of 622 cases reported in Washington County so far this year, there have been no deaths. In Greene County, there were 168 cases and no deaths. Allegheny and Philadelphia counties were hit the hardest, with eight reported dead in Allegheny County and 10 in Philadelphia County from the influenza virus. There were nearly 28,000 confirmed cases statewide.
But the recent reduction in new infections doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in the clear.
“It’s still not too late for people to get vaccines if they’ve yet to do so,” Gillis said. “We don’t know how long it’s going to last. There’s no definitive saying on how long it’s going to stick around, so the vaccine is still a good idea.”
The flu virus has given the appearance of peaking in the past, only to reappear with a second outbreak. Most recently, the 2008-2009 flu season declined in early February before making a comeback in the spring.
Despite early hope that the flu vaccine had been well matched to this season’s strains, the virus hit the Keystone State – and the country – especially hard. The number of flu cases this year in Pennsylvanian more than doubled last year’s figure.
“We anticipated a more robust flu season because last year was relatively mild,” Gillis said. “When that happens, it’s often stronger the next year.”
Although numbers seem to be on the decline, Gillis said residents should still take the proper precautions to avoid getting sick.
“It’s really important to practice good hygiene,” Gillis said. “Disinfect surfaces, always wash your hands and stay home if you’re sick.”
In addition to a resurgence of the flu virus, health officials are staying on alert for a particularly nasty strain of norovirus that has recently traveled to the United States after wreaking havoc in Australia. The stomach flu is extremely contagious and poses a serious danger to newborns and the elderly.
The norovirus is not related to influenza. Symptoms of the virus include vomiting and diarrhea leading to dehydration. Although some patients have shown similar symptoms, Canonsburg General has not had a confirmed case of norovirus this season.
Buckner stressed the importance of avoiding both bugs.
“The key is prevention,” Buckner said, “not treatment once you get it. It’s so difficult to treat once you get them.”