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Down with the flu? State health officials say it's reached ‘epidemic’ levels

Health officials say it’s not too late to get a flu shot, and this year’s vaccine is a good match for the virus in circulation.
Health officials say it’s not too late to get a flu shot, and this year’s vaccine is a good match for the virus in circulation. McClatchy

At least 9 flu-related deaths have been reported in Washington since December, four in the past week alone, and health officials say this might be the state’s worst season in years.

“The state epidemiologist has identified that we’re now at an epidemic level in the state,” said Edie Jeffers, a spokeswoman for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

Snohomish County officials on Tuesday have linked four deaths to the flu, and Pierce County reported three more in the past week.

No flu-related deaths have been reported in Whatcom County, but officials urge caution.

“Influenza season is upon us,” read an online post from Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer. “Increasing activity in Whatcom County and Western Washington.”

Stern said it’s not too late to get a flu shot, “but it will take two weeks for full effect.”

Dr. Preeti Kondal, an infectious disease physician at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, said this year’s vaccine is a good match for the virus in circulation.

Slowing the spread of flu helps protect those most vulnerable to the ailment: the young, the elderly and those whose immunity and and health are compromised.

“That (vaccine) is your best protection against the flu and will make the illness less serious if you do get sick,” Jeffers noted.

Paul Throne with the Washington State Department of Health said nine people have died this season from the flu, and this year’s flu strain – H3N2 – has reached an “epidemic” level. Throne told KING5 in Seattle that hospitals are not required to report the number of people with the flu, so officials don’t know the exact number of flu cases in the state.

In Pierce County, where hospitalizations are increasing each week, the latest patients were between 60 and 90 years old and had underlying health conditions that increased the risk of death from influenza.

“It is pretty severe,” Kondal said. “These are the highest numbers I’ve seen, close to the H1N1 pandemic (in 2009).”

Washington state epidemiologist says the flu is at epidemic levels. Local hospitals, including Tacoma General, are at or near capacity.

The epidemic designation comes well before the typical peak of the flu season in February or March.

Once someone is infected, it might take seven to 10 days to rid the body of the flu virus. People can remain infectious up to seven days after becoming sick, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The News Tribune in Tacoma contributed to this report.

Flu symptoms

Fever (but not in all patients)

Muscle and joint aches

Sore throat and cough

Runny nose

Fatigue

Headaches

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How to stop the spread

Wash hands with soap and water every time you use a bathroom.

Avoid touching face with hands.

Sneeze and cough into your elbow, not your hands.

If sick, stay home.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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