Flu season has come early to Whatcom County, and residents who haven't yet gotten their flu vaccine are being urged to do so.
That's because local and state public health officials don't believe the flu has peaked here.
"We know that activity for the flu is high right now. That means that it will likely be around for many more weeks and so people should get vaccinated because influenza seasons are unpredictable," said Julie Graham, spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Health.
State health officials on Thursday, Jan. 17, classified flu activity as widespread, meaning that people are catching and spreading the illness in much of Washington - with it on the increase in many communities, including Whatcom County.
"It's just getting into swing here," said Dr. David Lynch, medical director for Family Care Network. "This is probably going to go on for a couple more months."
A vaccine is still the best protection against the flu, health officials said, and this year's is well-matched to the circulating strains, including influenza A (H3N2). That strain is the main culprit for the illness that swept through the Southeast and East Coast - where it started before spreading to the rest of the country, causing a spike in flu-related deaths and hospital visits.
"Seasons that are predominantly H3N2 tend to result in more severe disease," said Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer.
The number of confirmed flu cases went down in Western Washington, but increased in Eastern Washington, according to the most recent weekly state flu update, which covered the period ending Jan. 12.
Meanwhile, emergency room visits for influenza-like illness increased on both sides of the state, according to the report.
Statewide, the flu has caused 12 deaths - all caused by the influenza A virus, with 10 of those deaths in people 65 years and older.
Flu also is on the uptick in Whatcom County, according to the county's weekly flu report for Jan. 6-12. Tests confirmed 16 cases of influenza A and three cases of influenza B in Whatcom County. And there were four hospitalizations because of the flu.
That's up from seven confirmed cases of the A strain and zero of B in Whatcom County in the previous week.
And four schools in the county reported absenteeism rates of more than 10 percent that were related to illness. Such rates are an indirect measure of flu activity, but they also could be caused by other types of illnesses.
There also was a flu outbreak reported by a long-term care facility during the week.
"We're seeing increased cases locally," Stern said.
Flu symptoms include fever and chills, cough, sore throat, muscle and body aches, and extreme fatigue.
For Bellingham resident Sandy Prestlien, the flu began with a cough on Jan. 2. That evolved into a headache, nausea and a 104-degree temperature.
She was hospitalized for three days and treated with the antiviral Tamiflu. She lost six pounds in five days.
"As an adult, this is the sickest I've ever been," said Prestlien, who had gotten a flu shot. "People in the community really need to know how deadly this influenza A is."
Prestlien said Thursday, Jan. 17, was the first day she felt better, the best day she's had since Jan. 2.
"It's been a long time," said Prestlien, who is a radiation therapist at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center.
For now, public health officials said it's too soon to say whether it will be a bad year for the flu in Whatcom County.
But they continue to encourage people who haven't gotten vaccinated to do so. Heightened demand for it has led to dwindling supplies in some locations, including the Student Health Center at Western Washington University and some pharmacies.
PeaceHealth Medical Group clinics are reporting an increase in people coming in for treatment because of the flu and in requests for the vaccine, according to Debbie Taylor, director of operations.
Although the medical group still has the flu vaccine, it's ordering more, she said.
The vaccine is about 62 percent effective this season, which means that people who are vaccinated are about 62 percent less likely to get flu severe enough to require a visit to the doctor or hospital.
"It can reduce the severity even though you still may get sick," Stern said.
WHAT TO DO
Get vaccinated: It's the best protection against the flu. The vaccine is recommended for those six months and older.
Find the vaccine: Call your doctor or go online to whatcomcounty.us/health/flu and click on "Seasonal Flu Vaccine Availability" on the left. The list is updated weekly on Fridays. Or use the "Flu Vaccine Finder" at flu.gov. Because supplies for some medical offices or pharmacies are dwindling or some locations are ordering more, people should call ahead.
Other steps: Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Avoid touching your face and eyes. Cover your cough. Stay home from work and school if you're sick. Stay away from those who are ill.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or email@example.com.