Flu cases spike in Whatcom County, and more people are likely to get sick

This year’s flu vaccine seems to be a close match for the current circulating strain.
This year’s flu vaccine seems to be a close match for the current circulating strain. AP

The flu has hit Whatcom County early and hard this winter, and more of it probably is on the way.

“We don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” said Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer.

The number of cases are spiking here, as they are in the rest of Washington state. Flu illness also was up nationally, as well as in British Columbia and the rest of Canada.

The flu has killed at least 24 people in Washington state so far this season, according to new data released Friday by the Washington State Department of Health. That data goes through Dec. 31.

The deaths occurred in people with underlying health conditions, according to the state data. They ranged in age from 50 to older than 65. None of those deaths was in Whatcom County.

Stern said the flu season started about a month early, and the current strain that is circulating through the state – H3N2 – tends to make people sicker.

“We’re thinking there’s potential for it to be a more severe season,” Stern said.

What’s the best way to protect yourself?

“It’s not too late to get the vaccine,” said Kirk Gulden, a family physician with Family Care Network’s Urgent Care Center.

This year’s vaccine seems to be a close match for the current circulating strain.

Even if you already came down with the flu, health officials said it’s a good idea to get vaccinated anyway. That may help your chances of not contracting the next strain that could roll through later this season.

People at high risk for serious complications from the flu – including the young, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses – also should ask their doctors about getting a prescription for antiviral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza.

Doctor’s offices are reporting more patients coming in complaining of flu-like symptoms.

Gulden said Family Care Network has seen a “significant uptick” in flu or flu-like illnesses in the past two to three weeks.

At PeaceHealth, there has been “a definite increase in both phone calls and visits from patients with flu-like symptoms this week,” said Hilary Andrade, spokeswoman for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.

“The PeaceHealth Same Day Care Clinic also has seen an increase in the number of patients coming in for the flu vaccine,” she said.

Here is what is happening with flu activity in Whatcom County, according to the latest data:

▪ There were 110 lab-confirmed cases of flu in Whatcom County for the week ending Dec. 31. That was up from 44 confirmed cases the previous week, which ended Dec. 24, according to the Whatcom County flu report.

▪ The number of people hospitalized with the flu at PeaceHealth’s hospital in Bellingham has nearly doubled to 20 as of Monday, compared to the previous week.

▪ People also have been flocking to the hospital’s emergency room. About 61 percent of the 113 confirmed flu cases were from ER patients, for the week ending Jan. 1.

The week before, there were just a total 19 confirmed cases at the hospital.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Flu symptoms

Don’t know whether you have a cold or the flu? One difference between the two is that flu symptoms will hit you quickly, while cold symptoms come on gradually.

Other signs you have the flu include:

▪ Fever, or feeling feverish or chills. However, not everyone with the flu gets a fever.

▪ Cough

▪ Sore throat

▪ Runny or stuffy nose

▪ Muscle or body aches

▪ Headaches

▪ Fatigue

▪ Vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults

You may feel some or all of the symptoms.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Prevent the spread

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 cdc.gov/flu and enter your zip code in “Flu Vaccine Finder” on the right.

Other steps: Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Avoid touching your face and eyes. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough. Stay home from work and school if you are sick. Stay away from those who are ill.

Source: Whatcom County Health Department