Worst of flu season could be over

Pennsylvanians have been battling a particularly nasty flu season this year, but data from the state Department of Health show that the worst of it may be over, with the number of cases declining for the third straight week.

The health department website’s most recent data, for the week of Feb. 3, showed 1,275 lab-positive flu cases reported – a more than 50 percent drop from the previous week, where there were 2,736 cases.

The number of hospitalizations also declined across the state from 177 to 151 in the same time period, with a peak of 577 hospitalizations the second week of January.

That represents a nearly 75 percent drop in less than a month.

Dr. Matthew Bouchard, chairman of Altoona Regional Health System’s Emergency Medicine Department, said the statewide numbers are being reflected locally.

“We have had a lot fewer people” in the emergency room the past few weeks, he said. “It did peak exactly the [second and third] weeks of January.”

In peak weeks, doctors saw roughly 50 cases per week at the hospital, Bouchard said. That number is down to three to nine cases per week.

However, he stressed the data may not be entirely accurate, because influenza test supplies were low nationwide and doctors were conserving tests.

The number of cases is likely higher, he said.

Altoona Regional Safety Officer Susan Wertz said the hospital has restricted visitors, including no one except the father in the maternity units, and canceled student job-shadowing programs until the end of flu season.

She said no one under age 18 is allowed into the hospital, unless as a patient, since school-aged students pass the virus among themselves more easily than other age groups.

“[People] still have the flu, and it’s still out in the community,” she said.

According to the Health Department’s website, there were 40 new cases reported in Blair County last week. The number of flu-related deaths so far this season stands at three each in Bedford and Centre counties, two each in Blair and Cambria counties and one in Clearfield County.

Huntingdon County has had no reported deaths so far.

The total number of deaths statewide stands at 141, with Pennsylvanians 65 and older representing the lion’s share of fatalities at 122.

Bouchard said as is often the cases, the majority of cases at Altoona Regional have affected babies and the elderly.

He recommended people who haven’t yet gotten a flu vaccination to do so, noting that people not getting vaccines may have accounted for the early onset of flu season this year.

“Last year’s flu season was almost nonexistent” and data from that year is negligible, he said. Because of that, people may have neglected to get a flu shot this past year.

In addition, in the years following the 2009 swine flu pandemic, there was an increased public awareness about illness and people kept up with their shots for a few years.

“We didn’t see a bad flu season for a few years [after that], so people got complacent,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.