Flu outbreak hits region

Early signs warn of rough flu season
Dec. 08, 2012 @ 12:44 AM

Sevier County is one of many areas in the South experiencing a flu outbreak, which area officials say is occurring earlier and is worse than usual.

East Tennessee Regional Health Office public information officer Gail Harmon said the region is experiencing the highest number of reported influenza cases across the state, which could indicate a rough flu season overall.

"While flu is unpredictable, the fact that we're seeing so many cases this early in the season, as well as the specific strains we are seeing, suggests this could be a bad flu year," Harmon said.

According to Harmon, flu season typically begins as early as October and can continue through May. The number of flu cases in Tennessee generally peaks in January or February.

Last year's flu season set records for the lowest and shortest peak of influenza-like illness cases.

"The season began late and was mild compared to most previous seasons for which surveillance data is available," Harmon said.

Harmon said the last time flu season started this early was 2003, and local clinics are feeling the impact.

"We have seen a lot of flu patients, and it started very early this year" said nurse practitioner Missy Large at Mountain Hope Good Shepherd Clinic. "We probably see two to three people (with flu) a day, and people calling in stating they have the flu, or feel that they have the flu."

Large said the clinic started seeing flu patients in October, and a sharp increase in flu patients began around three weeks ago.

As with many viruses, children and elderly populations are most susceptible to flu, and crowded conditions make it easier to contract the virus, Large said.

"Generally when people are in crowded conditions, it's airborne so you breathe it in when you're around someone that has it, and you can contract it that way," she said. "You have to get folks out of these closed environments to decrease the transmission of flu."

Large and Harmon both recommended taking everyday precautions to try to avoid the flu, such as covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing; washing your hands with soap and water; avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth; avoiding close contact with sick people; and, if you are sick, staying home from work or school until you recover.

But the best way to prevent the flu, Harmon said, is to get vaccinated.

Mountain Hope is administering free flu vaccines to its patients, many of whom are uninsured and may not be able to pay for vaccines out of their pocket, Large said.

"Knowing the flu was a real problem this year, we've given free vaccinations to make sure our patients are covered," she said.

Large noted one way a county can try to control a flu outbreak is to close schools, which can be breeding grounds for influenza and other viruses. Indeed, Union County Schools were closed Tuesday for illness and will remain closed until Monday.

Sevier County Assistant Superintendent Debra Cline, however, said the numbers in the schools are not abnormal right now. She said a few schools have seen an increase in absences, but it's nothing that would cause those schools to close temporarily.

"It's nothing that has swept county-wide, nothing where we would call off school," Cline said. "What we've seen has been just random colds and intestinal viruses, not a rash of what we would traditionally identify as the flu."

Jana Chambers, director of Sevier County Health Department, said the health department, in its new offices on Middle Creek Road near the hospital, is also administering free flu shots until its vaccine supply is exhausted.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is saying this flu vaccine is a 90-percent match for the strains going around," Chambers said.