COLUMBIA, SC — NEW: Compare this year's flu trends in Columbia with prior years with this interactive chart from Google.
The 2012-2013 flu season hit early and hard, reminding everyone theres no such thing as a typical flu season.
But now a brief downturn in cases reported at physicians offices and in schools prompts faint hope the season could be mercifully short. Or does it?
For the thousands who have come down with the flu in recent weeks, statistics and seasons dont mean anything. They were miserable no matter how the numbers stack up.
Suzanne Duff of Columbia felt like she was coming down with a cold Dec. 21. The next morning, I woke up with a 102-degree fever, splitting headache, body aches, cough, extreme fatigue, she said.
She did everything right. Got the flu shot in October, went to a physicians office as soon as she felt bad, took antiviral medicine that usually reduces the severity of flu after symptoms arrive. And she said she didnt feel 100 percent until a week later.
I didnt miss any work, but I was sick my entire holiday, she said.
Her story is unfortunately common. From 70 to 80 flu cases were treated per week the first three weeks of December at the Lexington Medical Center Urgent Care centers, said Dr. Donald Moore.
Its been significant, Moore said. And this years particular brand has been particularly bad in terms of body aches. Ive have patients saying they wanted to get the license number of the truck that hit them.
Body aches are standard flu fare, along with high fever, headache, dry cough, sore throat and generalized weakness. Some of those symptoms also go along with the garden-variety upper respiratory illnesses that have hit the area hard in recent weeks. Extreme body aches and rapid onset of symptoms are the best indicators you probably have seasonal flu.
Nationwide, 41 states reported widespread flu outbreaks in the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That sort of coverage is common in late January, less so in early January.
But flu seasons are less predictable even than the weather. With flu, you cant tell by when the first storm hits how long the season will be, said Dr. Eric Brenner, an epidemiology professor at USC.
Think back over the past four seasons, which for record-keeping purposes overlap calendar years, so the typical December-February peak is covered in one reporting period.
In 2009-2010, a rare H1N1 strain spread quickly in the warm summer months, when flu usually is on the downswing, and peaked in September and October. The 2010-2011 season was closer to normal, though it didnt start until January and didnt peak until late February.
The 2011-2012 season was the mildest in a decade, never really peaking in South Carolina. Then came the early onset of the 2012-2013 season.
The severity of a season is measured by flu-related hospitalizations and flu-related deaths. In South Carolina, there had been 862 hospitalizations though Dec. 29 this season, compared with 1,091 in all of the 2009-2010 season, 996 in 2010-2011 and 114 in 2011-2012. The death totals are 15 through Dec. 29 this season, compared with 49 in 2009-20010, 20 in 2010-2011 and one in 2011-2012. Fourteen of the 15 deaths this season have been people age 65 or older.
Amid all the doom-and-gloom reports about the current flu season, theres a glimmer of hope: It might already have peaked.
In portions of South Carolina, the number of patients with influenza-like illness dropped remarkably in late December. Physicians participating in the DHEC reporting system in Richland and Lexington counties noted 1,450 positive rapid tests in the week ending Dec. 8, then 1,018 the week ending Dec. 15 and 498 the week ending Dec. 29. (The Dec. 22 week report was incomplete.)
Weve already seen a drop, Moore said. Maybe were seeing it play out. You never know. February is the month when you can really tell.
In the Richland-Lexington 5 school district, there were 107 students out with the flu on one day in early December, but flu-related absences dropped the third week of December and remained at normal levels the first few days after the students returned this month, according to district spokesman Mark Bounds.
In Richland 2, there were 207 reported cases of flu in the first two weeks of December, but only 10 cases of influenza-like illnesses were reported in the first four days back in January, according to Theresa Riley Stephens.
Lexington 1 was sending home about 58 students with flu-like symptoms each day before the Christmas break. On Monday, they sent home just one, according to district spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill
The reduction could be a result of kids being out of school for a couple of weeks, said DHEC epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell. The schools tend to be an incubator for the flu.
It would be a surprise to see that downward trend continue, she said. It would be our hope, but it would be unusual to go down that quickly.
The early outbreak might have prompted many parents to get flu shots for their children during the holiday break, Bell said. If so, the typical post-holiday bump in flu cases in schools might be reduced.
Anecdotal reports from physicians indicate plenty of patients came down with the flu despite getting flu shots. But that can be deceiving, health officials say. Some get exposed to the virus before their flu shots have taken effect, which takes about two weeks. Some who say they came down with flu after getting shots really have one of the other upper respiratory infections going around.
But even in a good year, flu shots are only 70 percent to 90 percent effective, according to the CDC. So in a year when theres a large outbreak, lots of immunized people still come down with the flu. Health officials like to look at it another way: Think of how many more people would have contracted flu if nobody got flu shots.
Health officials try to predict the most common flu variant six months ahead of time to allow for the time lag in production of the vaccine. They guessed right this year, and the current flu shot was designed to cover the strain of flu (Influenza A H3N2) that has been most common this year, according to the CDC.