Despite focus on new coronavirus, doctors warn locals to prepare for height of flu season

While the coronavirus is still being discussed throughout the globe, doctors don’t want the public to forget about an even more pressing illness: the flu.

“There’s still a lot of information to be learned about the coronavirus, so obviously the unknown is frightening,” said Dr. Doug Mitchell, medical director for Children’s Hospital of the Kings Daughters Medical Group. “It gets people’s attention whereas the flu is there every year but if you look at the numbers [of deaths] it puts it into perspective.”

As of Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there have been approximately 14,000 to 36,000 deaths from the flu in the U.S. between Oct. 1, 2019 and Fed. 8. However, only 1,770 have died from the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, internationally according to media reports.

The Virginia Department of Health recently reported the first pediatric flu death of the season on Feb. 11.

“Usually we see an average of three [deaths] a season, but that can vary,” said Em Stephens, respiratory disease coordinator for VDH. “Obviously every death is a tragedy but we see it every season.”

For the 2020 flu season, VDH is so far reporting the illness to be at widespread levels across the state. Stephens said this means there have been confirmed flu cases in more than half the state.

At Sentara Healthcare locations throughout the region, there have been 3,796 flu cases which is 1,874 less than the previous year, according to data from Dr. Anthony Fisher, vice president of Medical Affairs at Sentara CarePlex Hospital and the Sentara Healthcare Influenza Prevention Task Force Leader.

At Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg, Dr. James McCorry, chief medical officer, said there have only been about 150 cases of the flu this season, which he noted was lower than the previous years.

CHKD Medical Group practices have reported 500 flu diagnoses in their 31 practice locations throughout the region just between Feb. 2 and Feb. 8, Mitchell said. He added this number does not include the hospital system’s emergency department or urgent care centers.

While the flu season occurs every year, there are still unique aspects to each season. For example, this year there was a prevalence of the B strain of flu earlier than the A strain, which isn’t typical, Stephens said. She added that determining which strain occurs earlier in the season can help health officials determine how likely they are to see complications in certain age groups.

Doctors across Hampton Roads and the Peninsula want patients to protect themselves before they get sick. Groups of people who can have the most severe consequences from the flu are children younger than 4 years old and adults older than 65, Mitchell said.

Those groups of individuals have lower immune systems and are more likely to have complications from the virus.

But doctors want to see everyone protected, not just those at risk for complications.

“There’s been a greater push to get everyone vaccinated rather than just those at risk,” Stephens said. “Getting everyone protected should help with complications overall.”

However, since flu season occurs every year, these hospitals are prepared for an influx of patients.

At Sentara’s facilities, the Influenza Prevention Task Force meets regularly to discuss how to prepare for the flu season, Fisher wrote in an email. He said that includes monitoring vaccination supplies, communicating masking protocols and other preparations.

McCorry said Riverside Doctors Hospital is always prepared for flu season by stocking areas with masks and requiring staff to get flu shots.

The flu season is expected to continue until the end of March, so doctors are recommending patients still get a flu shot. And in the meantime, cover their mouths when they cough.

“There’s simply things you can do to not spread an illness, things your grandmother told you when you were little,” McCorry said. “For example: if you sneeze, put a tissue over your nose.”

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