With an early start to the latest flu season, the entire state is feeling the effect of widespread infection and the county is no exception. Local physicians are treating more flu cases than typical for the year while many area schools have had increases in absenteeism due to illness. However, local and state health experts say the current flu vaccine is providing sufficient protection to those inoculated in the past month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama is one of 24 states reporting high levels of flu and flu-like illness and one of 41 states where the disease is widespread. Late last year, Alabama health officials warned that with an earlier-than-normal start, the latest flu season could be more severe than usual. The state’s flu season typically starts after Christmas or in early January. The current flu season started in November, however.
“There’s an awful lot of flu infection out there,” said Dr. Donald Williamson, state health officer. “We’re seeing more disease this year than last year.”
Williamson said nearly all the samples taken to date in the state are influenza strains that were included in the vaccine.
“People who took the vaccine should have some level of protection,” Williamson said.
Dr. Howard McVeigh, who works in the emergency room at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said this flu season has been more severe than usual.
“It seems like we’re still seeing a lot of them,” McVeigh said.
McVeigh noted that the flu was hitting the young and old alike and that the vaccine appeared to be effective this year.
“Every person who has come in did not get the vaccine … I have not seen anyone vaccinated have a positive flu test,” McVeigh said.
Jeannie Stanko, nurse practitioner at Anniston Family Practice, said her clinic had also treated more than its share of flu cases in the last few months.
“Last year we saw some but not at the magnitude we’re seeing now,” Stanko said. “We feel like it’s slowed down a little bit — we had three or four positives yesterday — but it’s still very prevalent.”
Stanko said her flu patients ranged from children to healthy adults and the elderly and that most had not been vaccinated.
Lesa Cotton, health services coordinator for the Calhoun County school system, said the flu has hurt attendance this school year.
“We’ve seen an increase in absenteeism, just compared to the normal absentee rate at this time,” Cotton said. “And we’ve had an increase in confirmed parent reports of the flu and by that I mean they’ve taken their children to the doctor and were told they had the flu.”
To help combat the outbreak, a nasal spray version of the flu vaccine was offered to all county school students in December.
“We had about 30 percent of students opt to do that,” she said.
Anniston Superintendent of Education Joan Frazier said her students were also offered the nasal spray vaccine prior to Christmas vacation. And unlike the county, Anniston absenteeism has not been above normal this flu season.
Frazier noted that school staff are promoting healthy practices to avoid spreading infections, such as keeping surfaces clean and encouraging students to wash their hands regularly.
Though the flu is in high gear, demand for vaccine at the Calhoun County Health Department has so far been low, said Phyllis Coughran, an immunization manager for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“We’re still offering it as people come in, but there still is just not a big, huge request for it,” Coughran said.
Coughran said that while it is not too late to get the vaccine, it will take a couple of weeks before it has any effect.
Williamson said it is still unclear whether the flu season will continue to be stronger than normal in the coming months.
“You can never predict with influenza … I would never guarantee that it would be more prolonged,” Williamson said.
“My guess is that we’ll see influenza out into February and March because that’s historically what it’ll do.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.