Flu season may be waning in county

Jan. 16, 2013 @ 12:25 AM

Amid one of the worst influenza seasons the state has ever seen, counties across Tennessee are still seeing significant increases in the number of flu cases, but according to local officials, Sevier County may be a lucky exception to the rule.

East Tennessee Regional Health Office public information officer Gail Harmon said the entire state has experienced a 9.2-percent increase in flu patients from last year, and the increase is “the highest number we’ve seen historically,” she said.

But while Sevier County, like the rest of the state, has been hit hard this year, officials in local hospitals and clinics say the numbers are waning.

Marilyn Muncy, nurse manager at LeConte Medical Center’s Emergency Department, said the hospital has only seen a total of 31 positive flu tests since Jan. 1.

“For this time of year, that number is probably a little low, especially given how it’s raging in other parts of the country,” Muncy said.

At Smoky Mountain Urgent Care, clinical supervisor Nicole Ogle estimated that 10-15 patients visit the clinic for flu treatment each day, but that number is lower than it was in November and December.

“The numbers continue to be steady, but it has gotten a little better,” Ogle said.

Flu season typically peaks in late January or February, but Smoky Mountain Urgent Care CEO Dr. Mike Rothwell said he saw a peak in November, and the first patients began coming in around September.

“It’s definitely been one of the most prolonged seasons that I’ve ever witnessed, and the most widespread one in the last five years,” Rothwell said.

Muncy and Ogle both agreed that, overall, this season has been worse than last year, but the reason may have to do with last year’s mildness, and it’s hard to say what to expect if the season has already peaked.

“There’s no way to know what’s going to happen until it does or doesn’t,” Muncy said. “I almost expect it to get worse because of how prevalent it is everywhere else.”

Rothwell said the next few weeks will be telling of how the rest of the flu season will look, and he advised that people should still get vaccinated if they haven’t already, especially since the predominant flu strain he’s seen is Influenza A, “the bad one,” he said.

“The flu vaccine we have is effective, and we still have flu vaccines,” Rothwell said. “Only about 40 percent of the population out there who can get the vaccine have gotten it. I would advise anyone who hasn’t gotten vaccinated to get vaccinated.”

Although the clinic may not see more increases in flu, Rothwell still expects the season to last another eight weeks or more.

“Typically the season around here is on the way out by the end of March,” Rothwell said. “That’s if this is a typical season, and it’s already worse than typical.”

rhargett@themountainpress.com