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Pa. flu season picks up speed, packs a wallop

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013,
Jasmine Goldband
University of Pittsburgh junior Tom Farrell, 21 of Rochester, N.Y., waits to be checked for flu symptoms on Monday, January 7, 2013, in Pitt's student health center in Oakland. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Pennsylvania recorded more laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza in the last week of December than during the 2011-12 flu season, and health officials warn this could rank among the worst years in recent memory.

“It does not look like that has gone down at all,” said Dr. David A. Nace, who manages flu programs for UPMC. He said the flu season picked up speed in Western Pennsylvania in early December, about a month earlier than usual, and could hit the region hard for eight more weeks.

The last week of 2012 brought 3,193 flu cases statewide, topping last season's total of 3,020, the state Health Department said.

“The flu virus keeps everyone off-guard at all times. That's its job in life,” Nace said. “He who tries to predict the flu season is considered a fool.”

This season, Allegheny County leads Pennsylvania with 726 of 7,181 confirmed flu cases statewide from Oct. 2 through Dec. 29. Doctors warn the reported figures reflect only a fraction of cases.

Although flu shot distribution this year is widespread — the Walgreens and Rite Aid drugstore chains reported year-over-year sales growth — states nationwide have had outbreaks since the flu emerged in November in the South, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Most states are experiencing moderate to severe flu activity, said CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner.

“There's no explanation as to why seasons start early or are normal or severe,” he said. “Flu is unpredictable. Each season is unique.”

West Penn Allegheny Health System doctors anticipate a peak this week, said Dr. Thomas Campbell, chairman of emergency medicine.

“It's hard to say what next week will bring, so maybe it's not the worst” right now, Campbell said. “But it seems higher than I remember from last year.”

He said hospitalizations are most pronounced among the elderly. About 7 percent of reported flu cases in Pennsylvania this season led to hospital stays, on par with averages.

Four flu-related deaths involved patients older than 65, said Holli Senior, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

“We have not peaked yet. We're still on our way up the mountain,” Senior said.

Historical trends show more severe case volumes follow mild flu seasons, she said. “We knew last year was a very mild flu season.”

Senior joined doctors in emphasizing it's not too late to get a flu shot, which the CDC recommends for most people. The vaccine developed for 2012-13 is a good match for “the vast majority” of widespread flu strains, said Dr. Ronald Voorhees, acting director at the Allegheny County Health Department.

“The longer you wait, the less likely it is to be helpful,” Voorhees said. It takes about two weeks after inoculation for the vaccine to become fully effective.

Voorhees' department uses a tracking system the University of Pittsburgh developed to monitor severity of flu outbreaks. It shows more than 6 percent of emergency-room visits in the county involve flu-like symptoms. The high is usually between 6 percent and 8 percent, Voorhees said.

“We're as high or higher than some recent years for influenza” on the index, he said. “I'm expecting that we're going to start to peak sometime soon. We've been going up for a month.”

At Pitt, workers in the Student Health Service began seeing an uptick in symptoms before the holiday break, according to Dr. Elizabeth Wettick.

“It's just those high fevers; dry, hacking cough; and that feeling of being hit by a truck,” Wettick said. “The good news is, I'm still offering vaccine to our students. We still have a good supply.”

Pitt junior Tom Farrell, 21, of Rochester, N.Y., was in the campus health office on Monday because of flu symptoms. He said he got sick from his mother during the holiday break.

He didn't get a flu shot, but she did, Farrell said.

“I'm really just supposed to rest a lot, drink a lot of liquids, take it easy on myself,” he said. “Bad timing, but there's nothing you can do about it.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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