January 17, 2013

Maine flu epidemic unrelenting

Number of cases already 12 times greater than last year's

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

A statewide influenza epidemic shows no signs of slowing, according to a report filed earlier this week by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

click image to enlarge

Pharmacist Stacia Woodcock, a pharmacy manager for Walgreens in New York, administers a flu vaccine Monday.

AP photo


Reported flu cases in Maine:

* 2011-12: 10

* 2012-13: 125 (as of Thursday)

Cases reported so far this year at institutions (as of Tuesday):

* 80 at long-term care facilities

* 2 at an acute-care facility

* 3 at K-12 schools

* 1 among health care providers

* 3 at other institutions

* 1 at a camp

Cases this year by region:

* Kennebec County: 11

* Somerset County: 9

* Franklin County: 2

Source: Maine CDC

As of Saturday, 31 new flu cases had been reported over the previous week. As of Thursday, the total number of reported cases for the 2012-2013 flu season had hit 125, said Sheila Pinette, a physician and director of the Maine CDC.

By comparison, there were 10 reported cases of influenza last season.

In a state with 1.3 million residents, 125 cases doesn't sound like much; but the numbers underrepresented the scope of the epidemic, according to the Maine CDC. The data come from institutions that are required to report individual cases, such as schools and long-term care facilities; however, the vast majority of health care providers are not subject to the requirement.

In central Maine, reports of influenza cases kept pace with those of the previous week. As of Saturday, Franklin and Somerset counties were unchanged at two and nine flu cases, respectively. In Kennebec County, the number of cases rose from nine to 11.

At Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, the number flu cases has been manageable, said Community Relations Manager Jill Gray. Fewer patients with flu symptoms are checking in to the emergency department this week than two weeks ago.

"We've been busy with the flu, but it hasn't been outrageous," she said.

In December, 75 patients tested positive for the virus. So far this month, 48 patents had tested positive, Gray said Thursday. There could be other cases of influenza that were not tested.

Maine CDC does not have data on the number of influenza-related deaths, but it is clear that some Mainers have died from the virus. According to the state's Electronic Death Reporting System, 15 percent of deaths since October were patients who developed pneumonia as a complication of influenza. Three hospitals voluntarily reported that 11 percent of their patients were admitted with influenza-related pneumonia during the same time period.

Pinette said the percentages are typical for a flu epidemic.

In December, a 6-year-old Benton girl who had not been vaccinated died from the virus.

The Maine CDC is asking people to take four precautions against the spread of the virus: Get vaccinated, wash your hands, stay home if you're sick and cover your cough with your sleeve or a tissue.

"Give yourself the gift of health. Get immunized," Pinette said.

Statewide availability of vaccinations and antiviral medications is adequate, but there are some shortages of pediatric doses, Pinette said. To find locations where pediatric doses are available, Pinette advises calling the Northern New England Poison Center, which has partnered with the Maine CDC to provide the information at 800-222-1222.

The state also has cleared some hurdles for MaineCare recipients to get antiviral medication if they are sick, Pinette said. For now, the state has lifted requirements that patients receive pre-authorization to receive the drug. MaineCare patients also do not need a positive test for influenza, which can take several days to process, before receiving the treatment.

Flu cases began cropping up in mid-December. The average flu epidemic lasts 12 weeks, "but it can go longer," Pinette said.

Ben McCanna -- 861-9239


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