It’s been a rough week, Dr. Robert Chaloner, CEO of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital acknowledged last Thursday night, himself a recently recovered victim of the flu. The widespread illness continues to top the headlines, with the Centers for Disease Control predicting the season on track for breaking records.
On the East End, influenza cases have kept emergency departments at area hospitals on the run. Officials at SBS in Southampton reported 122 cases in the ER from January 1 through last week. During the same timeframe last year, there were 91 cases. The CDC notes that it’s hard to gauge the exact number of flu cases since not everyone with influenza seeks medical care.
Local schools have seen an increase in flu-related absences. A teacher in East Hampton who asked not to be identified reported her district is even having trouble getting substitute teachers to come in to cover sick teachers’ classes. Said Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter, “Our absentee rate has been slightly higher than usual. We have reminded our students to wash their hands frequently. We have directed our custodians to clean desks, doorknobs, and areas student touch thorough-ly each evening. We have posted and sent home all precautions to take regarding the flu. Our staff have been slightly more effected this year than others.”
Patricia McArdle, Director of Infection Prevention and control at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport reported, “ELIH has seen a 62 percent increase in the number of patients presenting to the (Emergency Department) with confirmed influenza compared to the numbers seen in 2016-2017 for this time period from December 2017 through February 2018.”
According to published reports, over 60 children nationwide have died from the flu this season compared to 20 during the 2017 flu season. On Monday morning, CBS news reported a fourth New York City child had succumbed to influenza.
The CDC notes on its website that flu activity commonly peaks in the US between December and February. However, it’s unpredictable and can vary from season to season, beginning as early as October and continuing to occur as late as May.
Last Thursday Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a statewide public health emergency and directed New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to authorize emergency assistance funding to counties. That means enhanced reimbursement to counties and expanded efforts to promote and increase access to flu vaccines statewide. Governor Cuomo called on all 58 local health departments to expand efforts to more readily accommodate New Yorkers still needing a flu shot.
By Friday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken announced that the county would offer free influenza immunization to residents. The announcement follows Governor Cuomo’s declaration of a public health emergency in New York. All residents six months of age and older who have not already obtained their flu shots are urged to do so as soon as possible. The first clinic was held in Great River, with more clinics to be announced.
“We ask residents to obtain immunization against the flu to protect not only themselves but others who may be especially vulnerable to the flu, especially infants who are too young to be immunized, pregnant women, older residents and those with other health conditions that make them more vulnerable to flu,” said Dr. Tomarken.
For the last nine weeks, influenza has been geographically widespread across New York. As of February 3, 52,567 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza had been reported, and 11,802 people had been hospitalized with influenza. During last year’s flu season, there were 12,912 flu-related hospitalizations and eight pediatric deaths in New York. Over the last four years, there have been a total of 25 pediatric flu deaths in New York State and an average of 10,571 flu-related hospitalizations a year, Cuomo reported in a release announcing the emergency.
The Department of Health’s website links to each local health department providing the public a one-stop-shop approach to individual counties’ expanded efforts. Additionally, the HealthMap Vaccine Finder also identifies locations where vaccines can be found at other locations in New York State at www.vaccinefinder.org.
Governor Cuomo has also directed local health departments to re-focus enhanced outreach to vulnerable populations, including daycares, nursing homes, senior centers, and homeless shelters, to reemphasize the need for flu vaccinations, provide targeted education regarding the signs and symptoms of flu, and to identify and assist those populations with low vaccine rates.
Local health departments will coordinate with local school superintendents to identify schools experiencing an increase in absenteeism rates due to illness among students and staff and link them to ongoing education and vaccination efforts. These partnerships will further ensure effective education and guidance is provided to protect children, Cuomo said.