Rather than diminish as hoped during the holiday break, the incidence of flu in South Carolina blew up in late December, which translates into sick folks returning to work or schools Monday.
Health officials implore those with fever to stay home, especially if the fever came on suddenly and coincided with body aches, sore throat and a cough, the classic flu symptoms.
School nurses anticipate a busy first week.
“Some children love school and say ‘Mom, I feel fine,’” said Jessica Porter, lead school nurse in the Lexington 1 school district. “Then their teachers will notice them getting droopy and send them to us.”
If those children have fever, their parents are called to come get them. “We get them home quickly and make sure they stay home long enough,” Porter said. Reducing the spread of flu in the schools is “part of our job, and it’s a valuable part of our job.”
The nurses are the second line of defense against the spread of influenza in the schools. The first is the parents. The rule of thumb is don’t send children to school until they have been without fever for 24 hours without fever-reducing medication, Porter said.
This is a lesson people should have learned in school and taken into the working world. As the first day back from a two-week holiday break for many workers, Monday will find people “dragging themselves into work when the really shouldn’t,” Porter said.
In December, the elementary school portion of Hammond School closed for two days in reaction to high illness levels. Letters reminding parents to keep sick children out of school were sent home from several Richland 1 schools that were hit hard, and Lexington 1 blasted a flu advisory to parents’ voice mail the week before holiday break.
Flu typically peaks in South Carolina in late January or early February, but it can peak at any time of the year. During recent years with early peaks in December, flu statistics typically drop during the two weeks around Christmas as people stay away from schools and some offices. The 2012-13 season was a classic example, with rates dropping briefly Christmas week then the season peaking the first week of January.
This season, however, the flu train picked up speed during late December, according to statistics compiled by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The number of positive rapid flu tests – the tests taken in doctors’ offices – went from 3,700 in the week ending Dec. 13 to 8,967 the week ending Dec. 20 and 9,966 the week ending Dec. 27. Flu-related hospitalizations jumped from 177 to 270 to 465 in those weeks, while flu-related deaths went from 1 to 7 to 5.
“This is a heavy season,” said Dr. Matthew Crist, an epidemiologist with DHEC. “This is the type of season seen only a couple of times a decade.”
While children weren’t in schools where flu tends to spread easily, lots of people gathered for family events over the holidays. Those gatherings also tend to lead to flu-spreading interaction, Crist said.
One additional problem this season is ineffectiveness of the flu vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s early study found this season’s vaccine was only 49 percent effective – compared to the shots’ long-term average 61 percent effectiveness – against the predominant Influenza A H3N2 strain this season. Based on the number of people who report getting the flu this year despite being vaccinated, that 49 percent figure might be too high.
Still, health experts say getting the shot is a good idea. Nearly 90 percent of the positive flu tests in South Carolina some weeks have been the H3N2 strain, which in a roundabout way seems to indicate the shot works well against the other major strains this year. Also, Crist noted, the vaccine also can reduce the severity of the symptoms.
In years past, getting the shot was one of the best ways to slow the spread of influenza. This season, staying home when you’re sick might be more effective.
“One of the most important ways to protect others, particularly if you have a fever, is to not expose others,” Crist said.