Sneezing, coughing, fevers and people out sick from school or work for one reason or another. All signs that something is going on.
That “something,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, is an outbreak of influenza, or the flu, that came earlier this year and is producing more cases of infection than in recent less active seasons.
CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden reported on Jan. 11 that 47 states reported widespread geographic influenza activity, up from 41 the week before.
“Influenza will continue for several more weeks. During the past decades, we have seen an average of about 12 consecutive weeks, three months of the ILI being elevated,” Frieden said. “As we often say, the only thing predictable about flu is that it’s unpredictable. Only time will tell us how long our season will last and how moderate or how severe this season will be in the end.”
Meanwhile, area schools are not reporting absences above average for this time of year.
“Apparently the flu has had minimal impact so far,” said Brandywine Heights Superintendent Dr. Martin D. Handler. “The attendance today (Jan. 17) is about 94.5 percent which is at normal. I was a little surprised.”
Handler said the students are always reminded about proper personal hygiene, hand washing, sneezing into your arm and such. Brandywine does not track why a student is out if it is illness unless it is one of the special disease categories so Handler could not say if Brandywine had any confirmed flu cases.
Fleetwood, on the other hand, has had a few confirmed cases of flu.
“We have had some cases of the flu but it has been very few. Hopefully it stays that way,” said Fleetwood Superintendent Dr. Paul Eaken.
When asked how Fleetwood addresses flu concerns, he said that each year the district nurses provide flu shots to employees, at the employees’ cost.
“So I think this helps,” said Eaken.
Kutztown School District has had confirmed cases of the flu.
Kutztown Elementary School Nurse Tina Schmeck said Kutztown elementary schools have seen an increase in absenteeism, although she said that it is difficult to determine if the absenteeism is due to influenza or other viral illnesses or bacteria because doctor excuses often do not include the medial diagnosis due to HIPPA privacy regulations.
Some parents have informed the school that their children have the flu: four at Kutztown Elementary and one at Greenwich Elementary.
“There are a few students that have been out more than 2-3 days and they could be absent due to the flu; we just don’t know,” said Schmeck.
Kutztown School District is promoting frequent hand washing, teaching and reminding both students and parents about proper hand washing techniques, healthy habits, and proper and safe coughing and sneezing techniques. Staff have also been vigilant with sanitizing surfaces at both elementary schools.
Also, the school nurse has provided information for teachers to send home to families asking their assistance in reinforcing good hygiene and addressing when to keep their child home to prevent spreading illness in school. For some of the younger grades, there is the presentation Henry the Hand and Glow Germ. Also, custodial staff cleans desktops, surfaces, and door knobs routinely.
At the middle and high school levels, Brenda Loeb, school nurse, said absences are up, but when parents call, the message they leave is “sick.”
“So it’s impossible to determine if they have the flu or not.”
With the outbreak of flu in Berks County expected to peak over the next couple of weeks, St. Joseph Medical Center opened a Rapid Flu Assessment Area in its Emergency Room in Bern Township to handle the growing volume of patients seeking care for flu-like symptoms.
The Rapid Flu Area is in operation during the bulk of the time when patients with symptoms are arriving, which is between noon and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. The facility will remain open until the outbreak abates.
Patients with flu-like symptoms should check in to the main emergency department in order for a professional triage nurse to fully assess their condition.
“Triage is an important part of the process, particularly so we can ensure that flu symptoms are not masking something more serious, like a heart or lung condition,” said Sandy Reedy who manages St. Joseph’s Emergency Department.
Reedy said if patients’ symptoms are clearly resulting from the flu—and they are not too severe, like suffering from dehydration—patients will be directed to the Rapid Flu Area. Reedy said state-wide medical and clinical sources are indicating that the flu outbreak is “really just beginning and expected to become more severe over the next three weeks before it breaks.”
Reedy cautions that patients with “co-morbidities”, such as another health problem like congestive heart failure combined with the flu, will not be moved to the Rapid Flu Assessment area as their conditions require closer monitoring.
Reedy said by “co-horting” flu patients in the same area minimizes exposure to others and also will “decompress the volume in the acute care ER to be prepared to address life threatening emergencies.”
Lehigh Valley Health Network is asking the community help them keep all of their patients, visitors and hospital staff healthy during this flu season, said Matthew Burns, of Media Relations, Lehigh Valley Health Network.
Effective Jan. 21, the health network is implementing temporary restrictions for visitors, a policy that will remain in effect until further notice.
According to Burns, visitors under age 18 are not permitted in the hospital. Also, people with flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, body aches) are asked not to come to the hospital for visitation. The visitation restrictions apply to hospital inpatient areas only and do not affect outpatient, procedure, treatment, diagnostic or pharmacy locations.
“We and other hospitals and long-term care facilities are being urged by public health agencies in our community to implement these visitor restrictions because of the widespread flu in the Lehigh Valley,” said Burns. “We understand that this is a temporary inconvenience but the cooperation of the community goes a long way in restricting the spread of disease and protecting patients and health care workers who must care for those patients.”
Reading Health System launched a flu hotline in early January. The hotline, 484-628-1FLU (1358) is available Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The free Flu Hotline is staffed by trained Hospital personnel who provide information based on the caller’s age, reported symptoms, and other health-related conditions. Depending on the information provided, recommendations may be made to: “rest and take fluids and over-the-counter medication,” or “make an appointment with your doctor today,” or “seek immediate medical assistance.”
The CDC recommends annual flu shots for everyone aged 6 months and older. In his media briefing recently, the CDC’s Dr. Frieden said as of November, about 37 percent of the population had been vaccinated. That number has likely increased in the past couple of weeks as the number of cases and awareness have increased.
In addition to getting vaccinated, the Red Cross has some simple steps people can take to help prevent the spread of the flu virus. Parents can also practice these things with their children to help keep them well:
•Cover the nose and mouth with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing, and throw the tissue away after use. If a tissue isn’t available, cough or sneeze into the elbow, not the hands.
•Wash hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand-rub.
•Avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth.
•Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
•Stay home if sick.
SIGNS OF THE FLU
So how can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu? How does someone know they have the flu? The common signs of influenza are high fever, severe body aches, headache, being extremely tired, sore throat, cough, runny or stuffy nose and vomiting and/or diarrhea (more common in children).
If someone in the household does come down with the flu, the Red Cross has suggestions for caring for the patient:
•Designate one person as the caregiver and have other household members avoid close contact with that person so they won’t become sick.
•Make sure the person stays at home and rests until 24 hours after the fever is gone.
•Designate a sick room for the person if possible. If there is more than one sick person, they can share the sick room if needed. If there is more than one bathroom, designate one for those who are sick to use. Give each sick person their own drinking glass, washcloth and towel.
•Keep the following either in the sick room or near the person: tissues, a trash can lined with a plastic trash bag, alcohol-based hand rub, a cooler or pitcher with ice and drinks, a thermometer and a cup with straw or squeeze bottle to help with drinking. A humidifier will provide extra moisture, making it easier for the sick person to breathe. Sick people should wear a facemask, if available, when they leave the sick room or are around others.
•Give plenty of liquids (water and other clear liquids) at the first sign of flu and continue throughout the illness. People with the flu need to drink extra fluids to keep from getting dehydrated.
•Treat fever and cough with medicines that can be purchased at the store. Remember, when children are ill they should never be given aspirin or products containing aspirin - especially with the flu.
•If the person gets very sick, is pregnant or has a medical condition (like asthma) that puts them at higher risk of flu complications, call their doctor. They may need to be examined and might need antiviral medicine to treat the flu.
•Keep everyone’s personal items separate. All household members should avoid sharing pens, papers, clothes, towels, sheets, blankets, food or eating utensils unless cleaned between uses.
•Disinfect doorknobs, switches, handles, computers, telephones, bedside tables, bathroom sinks, toilets, counters, toys and other surfaces that are commonly touched around the home or workplace.
•Wash everyone’s dishes in the dishwasher or by hand using very hot water and soap.
•Wash everyone’s clothes in a standard washing machine. Use detergent and very hot water, tumble dry on a hot dryer setting and wash hands after handling dirty laundry.
•Wear disposable gloves when in contact with or cleaning up body fluids.
CALL THE DOCTOR
And lastly, if someone thinks they have the flu, their health-care provider should be consulted. Seek medical care immediately if the person develops any of the following symptoms:
•Fast breathing, trouble breathing or bluish skin color.
•Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen (adults).
•Confusion or sudden dizziness.
•Not drinking enough fluids, not being able to eat or severe or persistent vomiting.
•Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough.
•Not waking up, being so irritable that the child does not want to be held or not interacting (children).
•Fever with a rash (children).
•No tears when crying or significantly fewer wet diapers than normal (children).
Lisa Mitchell, editor of The Kutztown Area Patriot, contributed to this article.