WIDESPREAD U.S. FLU, LEADING A RANGE OF WINTER'S ILLS
It is not your imagination — more people you know are sick this winter, even people who have had flu shots.
The country is in the grip of three emerging flu or flulike epidemics: an early start to the annual flu season with an unusually aggressive virus, a surge in a new type of norovirus, and the worst whooping cough outbreak in 60 years. And these are all developing amid the normal winter highs for the many viruses that cause symptoms on the “colds and flu” spectrum.
Google’s national flu trend maps, which track flu-related searches, are almost solid red (for “intense activity”) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly FluView maps, which track confirmed cases, are nearly solid brown (for “widespread activity”).
“Yesterday, I saw a construction worker, a big strong guy in his Carhartts who looked like he could fall off a roof without noticing it,” said Dr. Beth Zeeman, an emergency room doctor for MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Mass., just outside Boston. “He was in a fetal position with fever and chills, like a wet rag. When I see one of those cases, I just tighten up my mask a little.”
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston started asking visitors with even mild cold symptoms to wear masks and to avoid maternity wards. The hospital has treated 532 confirmed influenza patients this season and admitted 167, even more than it did by this date during the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic.
At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, 100 patients were crowded into spaces licensed for 53. Beds lined halls and pressed against vending machines. Overflow patients sat on benches in the lobby wearing surgical masks.
“Today was the first time I think I was experiencing my first pandemic,” said Heidi Crim, the nursing director, who saw both the swine flu and SARS outbreaks here. Adding to the problem, she said, many staff members were at home sick and supplies like flu test swabs were running out.
Nationally, deaths and hospitalizations are still below epidemic thresholds. But experts do not expect that to remain true. Pneumonia usually shows up in national statistics only a week or two after emergency rooms report surges in cases, and deaths start rising a week or two after that, said Dr. Gregory A. Poland, a vaccine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
The predominant flu strain circulating is an H3N2, which typically kills more people than the H1N1 strains that usually predominate; the relatively lethal 2003-4 “Fujian flu” season was overwhelmingly H3N2.
No cases have been resistant to Tamiflu, which can ease symptoms if taken within 48 hours, and this year’s flu shot is well-matched to the H3N2 strain, the C.D.C. said. Flu shots are imperfect, especially in the elderly, whose immune systems may not be strong enough to produce enough antibodies.
Simultaneously, the country is seeing a large and early outbreak of norovirus, the “cruise ship flu” or “stomach flu,” said Dr. Aron J. Hall of the C.D.C.’s viral gastroenterology branch. It includes a new strain, which first appeared in Australia and is known as the Sydney 2012 variant.
This week, Maine’s health department said that state was seeing a large spike in cases. Cities across Canada reported norovirus outbreaks so serious that hospitals were shutting down whole wards for disinfection because patients were getting infected after moving into the rooms of those who had just recovered. The classic symptoms of norovirus are “explosive” diarrhea and “projectile”vomiting, which can send infectious particles flying yards away.
“I also saw a woman I’m sure had norovirus,” Dr. Zeeman said. “She said she’d gone to the bathroom 14 times at home and 4 times since she came into the E.R. You can get dehydrated really quickly that way.”
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