We may sound like a broken record when it comes to flu season, but, the number and severity of the tragic stories emerging about the flu this season are a reason for concern.
The infection seems especially bad in California where 27 people younger than 65 have died from flu since October (seven of them were in the week before Christmas). At this time last year, that number was three.
The difference between last year and this year can also be seen in the graph below, where the number of positive flu tests in California is currently much higher than at this same time last year.
Emergency rooms are overcrowded, mostly due to flu patients, as reported by the LA Times. At the UCLA Medical Center, they are seeing more than 200 patients a day which has not happened since the Northridge earthquake (in 1994.) In some areas, the ambulances cannot keep up with the calls. And, when the ambulances do reach the hospital, some ER's are too full to take in new patients, making the ambulances wait with the patient - tying up the ambulance so that they cannot respond to the next emergency that comes along.
And, it's not just California. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, in just the last week, the number of jurisdictions experiencing high activity went from 21 states to 26 states and New York City and the number of states reporting widespread activity went from 36 to 46. Influenza-like illness (ILI) went from 4.9% to 5.8%. Numbers always lag by a few weeks, but, as of mid-December, at least 106 people had died from the infectious disease.
These numbers are not too different from those seen during the peak of the most severe season in recent years (2014-2015).
So, what can you do? Well, the first thing to do, if you haven't already, is to get the flu vaccine and encourage others to do it, too. Why not? It will most likely cost you zero dollars. (If it costs anything, it will be about $20.) And, it's easy. I walked into a pharmacy and walked out about 10 minutes later, vaccinated. It may spare you a nasty week in bed, or worse, a trip to the hospital. More importantly, it may prevent spreading the flu to someone who won't recover from it, like a baby or older person. If you need further convincing, please read some of the accounts of the 13 children who have already died. They are on social media and they are heart-wrenching.
It's not too late, either. It takes about 2 weeks for your body to produce immunity, so, you'll have protection by the time the peak is expected to hit come February and March.
Beyond that, there is not a whole lot that can be done. You can try to stay away from people who are sick. Once the flu strikes, if you catch it in the first 48 hours, Tamiflu may help lessen the symptoms, but it's pretty unlikely. Please read more on Tamiflu from my colleague, Dr. Josh Bloom. Even if you want Tamiflu, you may not be able to find it. Pharmacies have exhausted their supplies.
So, forgive us if we sound like a broken record. But, this flu season is bad and we are in the business of trying to communicate the latest concerns in science and medicine. And, right now, the growing concern over flu is one of the biggest stories out there. Let's hope that it doesn't get any bigger.