Despite recent declines in influenza activity, the virus could rebound locally in March.
Despite a recent decrease in flu cases, the worst effects of a record-breaking season might not be done yet.
The 2017-2018 flu season has been the worst nationwide in recent years, leading officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to compare it to the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic in terms of number of infections.
The virus has not spared Florida, with 420 recorded outbreaks in the state as of Feb. 17. Even after declines in influenza activity since a peak in outbreaks two weeks ago, the Florida Department of Health said the prevalence of the disease remains higher than peak levels observed in other recent flu seasons.
Influenza cases increase nationwide every winter, but both the severity and timing this season was unusual, local health officials said.
As of Monday, Sarasota Memorial Hospital had 773 positive screenings for the flu and admitted 329 into the hospital since December. The hospital saw 305 positive screenings and 126 admitted patients during that same time period a year ago.
“It still kind of took us by surprise here locally and at our hospital,” said Lisa Collins-Brown, SMH’s Emergency Care Center Director. “It happened much earlier than expected.”
Typically, the peak of the flu season hits Sarasota County in March, meaning that while medical personnel are encouraged about the recent downturn, they remain prepared for an uptick next month when visitor levels reach their peaks.
Ahead of its typical peak time for hospitalizations, Sarasota Memorial has already set records for most total admitted patients. The hospital exceeded its capacity of about 700 patients for the first time earlier this year, admitting as many as 340 patients in one 24-hour period earlier this flu season.
“If we have another wave of flu, that would give us more challenges,” Collins-Brown said.
The most important tool to combat the flu is a shot, Collins-Brown said, and it’s not too late in the season to experience its benefits. Most physicians, as well as area pharmacy providers including Publix, Walmart and CVS offer free flu shots under most insurance plans. The Sarasota County Health Department offers free shots to children and adults at its facility at 2200 Ringling Blvd. in Sarasota.
Collins-Brown said another key to prevention is routine hand washing. She also recommends anyone suffering from flu-like symptoms to stay home, as human contact helps spread the virus.
“(Flu season) is not over,” Collins-Brown said. “March could show another wave or increased volume of the flu and we need to be prepared for that.”