Christmas break for schoolchildren this year also could be a reprieve from a rapidly worsening flu outbreak in the Midlands.
Richland 2 sent letters home to the parents of children at seven schools this week to warn of high absence levels. Lexington 1 decided to blast a voice message on parents’ phones, reminding them to follow flu-prevention precautions and especially to keep children home if they are sick.
Entire districts in Georgia and North Carolina have shut down to stop the spread of influenza. Last week, Hammond School in Columbia closed its Lower School for two days because of high rates of illness.
“Sometimes even a weekend helps,” said Lexington 1 chief communications officer Mary Beth Hill, who noted that the district schools also have been hit in recent days with rotovirus and whooping cough. A two-week break should be even better.
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The 2014-15 flu season is following a trajectory similar to the 2013-14 season, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. There were about 3,700 positive rapid tests for flu last week, about 100 fewer than the same week last year. The 2013-14 season peaked in January, which is slightly earlier than the typical peak for flu season in the state.
“We’re seeing a good bit of flu,” said Dr. Jeremy Crisp with Lexington Family Practice Northeast. “There’s always an uptick during December, but it does feel a little earlier this year.”
Those who do have flu suffer typical symptoms – body aches, fevers, chills, coughs, sniffles, headaches. If they get diagnosed early and take antiviral medication such as Tamiflu, the symptoms clear up in a few days. Crisp noted that Tamiflu is starting to disappear from pharmacy shelves, with at least one location telling him they had run out.
Untreated, the symptoms can linger much longer and grow serious, especially for young children and the elderly. In the week ending Dec. 13, there were 177 flu-related hospitalizations in the state and one flu-related death. Since the season began in late September, the numbers are 514 flu-related hospitalizations and eight deaths. Three hundred of the hospitalizations and all eight of the deaths have been in the 50-plus age group, according to DHEC.
“People become blase to the flu, and they get excited about something exotic like Ebola,” said Dr. Eric Brenner, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina. Yet there have been more flu deaths in South Carolina this season (eight) than Ebola deaths in the entire country (two).
The news that this season’s flu vaccine is 10 percent to 15 percent less effective than usual against the main strain of flu has prompted concern. But it still provides some protection, which reduces the chance somebody will get the flu and the chance they will pass it along to someone else. Brenner suggests parents should take time during the school holiday to get a flu shot for their children.
In some seasons with early flu peaks, the school break leads to a reduction in cases, but that’s not always the case. After all, Crisp said, “people going to holiday parties are still swapping around germs.”
Still, the timing is ideal this year for shutting down the germ-swapping in schools.
“I think a lot of people are ready to keep their kids home and get everybody healthy,” Crisp said.