INFLUENZA A: Beaufort County not immune to national epidemic

Published 3:56 pm Saturday, January 3, 2015

NEWS_FEATURE_INFLUENZA A_150104The Centers for Disease Control are calling it a national epidemic. North Carolina health officials announced the death toll at 17 so far. Like the rests of the country, Beaufort County is not immune to this strain of influenza A that eluded this year’s flu vaccine.

“The first thing is that the flu vaccine completely missed this year for influenza A,” said Billie Whitfield, Vidant Beaufort Hospital’s infection preventionist. “This happens rarely, but it does happen, and we have had 98 people test positive just in the month of December.”

Whitfield, who has been working in the field since 2001, said she’d never seen so many positive cases, especially this early in the flu season, which normally peaks in January and February. This year’s season came early: first a few isolated cases in October, into early November. By Thanksgiving, medical professionals were seeing two to three cases a week and in December the numbers began to rise.

“It’s here in Beaufort County,” Whitfield said. “It’s not just what (people) see on TV — we’ve had a very, very active flu season.”

Though this year’s flu vaccine gives potential victims immunity to influenza B and limited immunity to strains of influenza A, the quickly mutating virus eluded designers of the vaccine this year.

“They make the vaccine to be able to attack what was most prevalent the year before,” Whitfield said, adding that the flu going around is a strain the vaccine didn’t cover. “Having the shot helped, but it didn’t give us the immunity we needed.”

The prevalence of the virus has led to an abundance of patients in eastern North Carolina hospitals (12 people have been admitted with the disease locally), visitor restrictions at those hospitals and much longer wait times in emergency rooms — up to five or six hours now at Vidant Beaufort. The much longer wait times in emergency rooms also causes another problem: preventing the spread of the disease.

“They come through the emergency room, which exacerbates the problem down there — we try to place them in an area where they won’t be in contact with many people,” Whitfield said. “All hospitals are experiencing the same thing. Hospitals are full.”

To prevent spread of the disease, restrictions have been placed on children under 12 visiting hospital patients for any reason than visiting a new sibling, simply because children are less cognizant than adults of taking precautions like not touching items others have had contact with and washing hands if they do.

“Please don’t visit if you are sick,” Whitfield said. “Pick up the phone and call your loved one, but don’t come in — for your own protection.”

Whitfield gave basic precautions against contracting the disease: wash hands frequently; use the disinfectant wipes provided in stores to wipe down shopping carts; stay out of crowds; don’t visit in person those who say they think they’ve got the flu.

“Be aware of how contagious it is. If you’re exposed to it, it can develop between one to four days after exposure,” Whitfield said, pointing out that this particular strain of flu comes on fast. “One minute you’re fine. The next, you feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.”

The hope is that an early flu season means that flu sufferers and medical professionals have already seen the worst of the season, but it’s best to be cautious because a second wave of the virus isn’t unheard of, according to Whitfield.

“We’re hoping this is going to peak in the next week or two weeks, but it hasn’t yet,” Whitfield said.