Alabama is having a busier flu season than a year ago, but it's not as bad as the 2009 pandemic, state Health Officer Don Williamson said Friday.
Williamson said the flu season began to take off in November, rather than the usual start in January, and it remained busy through December and into early January. He said he would not be surprised to see the flu rate last into March.
The state Department of Public Health doesn't tally the number of flu cases in the state, but based on available information, Williamson said the outbreak is greater than last season, which was mild. "It's compatible with what we've seen in our busier influenza seasons. It's certainly not as high as it was during our pandemic," he said.
In 2009, Alabama had athletic competitions and other events postponed because of the flu pandemic. A private school in Huntsville canceled classes for two days last month because so many students and faculty were ill, but the cancellations have been nothing like 2009.
Williamson said about 12 percent of the visits to Alabama doctors' offices in late December were for flu-like symptoms, which was nearly double the highest point a year ago.
Dr. John Atkinson, medical director of the UAB Moody Medical Center near Birmingham, said the three-physician practice saw 56 cases by the end of December and saw many more patients with flu-like symptoms. "It's a much busier flu season than we are accustomed to," he said.
He said about 10 to 15 percent of the flu patients had taken the flu shot, but their illness was less severe and shorter than those who didn't have the inoculation.
Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association, said flu patients have filled hospital emergency rooms across the state, but they have been able to handle the load without using tents or other unusual measures that have been needed in other states.
At East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, spokesman John Atkinson said the regional hospital has had 177 confirmed cases. There were 112 in December and 44 so far in January, which means it could outpace December, he said. Patients have ranged from 8 days old to 94 years old.
The vast majority of the cases in Alabama have been influenza A, which is covered by this season's flu shot, Williamson said. So far, Alabama still has plenty of the flu vaccine available and an adequate supply of Tamiflu to treat the illness, he said.
In Limestone County, however, some pharmacies and the Limestone County Health Department have already run out of the vaccine. A Limestone County Health Department nurse said Friday hey had run out by Thursday. She suggested those seeking a vaccine check with health departments in other counties.
Despite having more illness this season than last, Williamson said the department has not yet seen a rise in deaths. Alabama usually records about 900 deaths per year from flu and pneumonia, he said.
Vaccinate, if you can
Flu is a very contagious respiratory illness, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes that the best way to prevent it is to get vaccinated each year.
The CDC says the vaccine is a good match to the circulating viruses. Although influenza vaccination is recommended for all individuals 6 months and older, it is especially important to consider for the following people who are at higher risk of influenza-related complications:
• All children between 6 months and 5 years of age, but especially those between 6 months and 2 years of age;
• Adults 50 years of age and older, especially those 65 years and older;
• Adults and children with chronic disorders;
• Pregnant women;
• Children age 6 months through 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy;
• Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities;
• Persons who are immunosuppressed;
• Health care workers;
• Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children less than age 5 and adults 50 years of age and older;
• People who are morbidly obese (those with a body mass index, or BMI, of 40 or greater).
Stop the spread
The public is also reminded of the importance of following basic infection-control measures to help prevent the spread of the flu. These include covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or cloth when coughing and sneezing, washing hands frequently and staying at home when sick.