US, Colorado and Summit County health care providers see widespread flu cases

Doctors say the flu vaccine, shown here at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, will be more important than ever when flu season returns in the fall.
St. Anthony Summit Medical Center

stopping the flu starts with you

Prevent the spread of the flu virus by taking these everyday actions:

• Avoid close contact with sick people

• If you or your child has a flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone. The fever should be gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine. • While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible.

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.

• Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

Source: St. Anthony Summit Medical Center

This has been one of the worst flu seasons in recent years, and a government report issued last week shows one of every 14 doctor and clinic visits in the U.S. has been for fever, cough or other flu-like symptoms.

In fact, visits to the doctor for the flu have hit their highest level since 2009, when the swine flu pandemic swept the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week 48 states were reporting high patient traffic because of the flu, up from 39 states just a couple weeks before.

In Colorado, there were 173 additional hospitalized influenza cases reported through Feb. 3, bringing the total number of hospitalizations since the beginning of the 2017-18 flu season to 3,008, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which has identified 139 outbreaks associated with the flu in Colorado this season.

Locally, St. Anthony Summit Medical Center has admitted about a half-dozen patients over the past few weeks because of the flu, according to the hospital. Through Feb. 3, St. Anthony has seen 84 positive flu tests since the start of the season in October.

“The overall number is about twice what we saw last year, which represents a significant increase,” said Dr. Marshall Denkinger, chief medical officer at St. Anthony.

Dr. Kathleen Cowie, a family physician and chief medical officer at the Summit Community Care Clinic, has also noticed an uptick in the number of local flu cases she’s been treating this season.

“We are seeing more cases this year compared to previous years, and it is a more virulent strain of flu,” she said, explaining that this season also reminds her of 2009.

Fortunately, Summit County has been largely spared from the same kind of flu-related shortages that have plagued other regions in other states, Cowie said, and flu shots are still widely available here.

Still, some Summit County pharmacies have run out of medicine to treat the flu, and the Summit Community Care Clinic had to reorder flu-testing kits earlier than planned. Cowie also knows of at least one clinic in Summit County that has run out of flu shots.

The first step to preventing the flu, she said, is getting a vaccine, of course.

There are still some available at the Summit Community Care Clinic, St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, many local pharmacies and even some big-box stores.

Even though it takes a couple weeks to fully trigger the body’s immune system, there’s still great value in getting one, even at this late of a date, Denkinger said.

“Beginning this time of year we regularly receive the question of, ‘Should I still get the vaccination?’” he said. “The answer is the same as in the past — yes.”

While this year’s vaccination is less effective than previous flu shots, Denkinger said, it will still reduce someone’s chances of contracting the flu, and should that person come down with the flu, having a vaccination is likely to reduce the severity and duration of the illness.

Getting a flu shot also helps prevent the most vulnerable people in the community — such as the elderly, children, people with chronic health conditions and pregnant women — from being exposed to the virus.

Cowie and Denkinger both suggested regularly washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and minimizing any exposure with anyone who might be sick.

If someone feels they are getting sick, Cowie said, they should minimize their interactions with others to avoid spreading the illness.

“Going into work sick increases the risk for other people to become infected, too,” she explained, saying it’s far better to call in if you’re feeling ill than risk spreading the flu to your coworkers.

“Those very straight-forward, easy and common-sense things,” Denkinger said. “But one of my favorite things to tell people to do is frequently wash their bed sheets, pillow cases and towels.”

The flu season usually peaks in February, but the virus can hang around the High Country longer than that for a couple reasons, according to Denkinger.

“One of the interesting aspects of our local community is we tend to peak a little later than the rest of the country because of our visitor population and because the winter weather hangs around a little longer,” he said, explaining that the tourists come from all over the world, including some of the places hardest hit by the flu and that has a way of spreading it in Summit County more so than other places without so many out-of-town visitors.

This flu season got an early start nationwide, and health officials initially thought it would also have an early peak, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

The good news is deaths related to the flu and flu-related pneumonia so far have lagged behind some of the worst years of recent memory, in which as many as 56,000 people died due to the flu.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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