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It’s still not too late to get the flu vaccine

Washington is still seeing high rates of flu in patients young to old. It takes about two weeks for flu vaccine to take effect, but it's still not too late get it.
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Washington is still seeing high rates of flu in patients young to old. It takes about two weeks for flu vaccine to take effect, but it's still not too late get it.

More people are being sickened by the flu, as the illness surges in Whatcom County and the rest of Washington state.

The number of flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths have increased sharply over the past several weeks across the state, officials at the Washington State Department of Health said Friday.

Washington is one of 26 states where flu illness is high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

In Whatcom County, a total of 167 tests came back positive for the flu during the week ending March 9, the latest data available. All but six were caused by flu A viruses, according to the Whatcom County Health Department flu report.

The number of positive tests in Whatcom County was the highest so far this season, and up from 119 confirmed cases the previous week.

There have been two flu-related deaths in Whatcom County so far this season, according to the flu report.

In Washington state, a total of 622 tests came back positive for the flu during the week ending March 9, the latest data available from the state. All but seven were for flu A viruses, according to the Washington State Health Department weekly flu report.

That was up from 555 flu cases statewide the previous week, according to the state weekly flu report.

Statewide, there have been 93 flu-related deaths.

For the same period last year, there were a total of 200 confirmed flu deaths in Washington state. The flu killed a total of 296 people statewide during that deadly flu season.

In Whatcom County, seven people died from influenza-related conditions last flu season.

What’s happening this flu season?

“The current strains that are most prevalent right now, H1N1 and H3N2, are both A strains and are both in this year’s vaccine,” Kristen Maki, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Health, said Friday.

“But H3N2 is known to be more severe and cause more hospitalizations and deaths than other strains, and the vaccine is sometimes less effective against H3N2 than the other strains,” she said.

Flu trends

If you think the warm weather signals the end of flu, think again.

“While flu is often most active in the fall and winter months, we have flu all year long in Washington, and we can have spikes of activity as late as March or April,” Maki said.

“As a reminder, in the 2016-17 season Washington had two separate spikes. Activity can also go up and down all season long rather than peaking at once,” she said.

Flu symptoms include fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea.

Health officials recommend people get the flu vaccine, saying there was still time to do so.

“I think we’re actually still deep in the flu season and we’ll have to see how the next few weeks go,” UW Medicine’s Dr. John Lynch, medical director of infection control at Harborview Medical Center, said in a video.

He said that the usual indicators of the season’s end haven’t appeared.

“Typically, we also look at what’s called influenza B, a second type of influenza. It doesn’t typically cause big epidemics. It’s the one that comes up towards the end of the flu season, so we actually haven’t seen any of that,” Lynch said.

Protecting yourself

The vaccine’s effectiveness varies from year to year, but public health officials said it still offers the best protection.

Certain groups of people — young children, pregnant women, those with chronic health conditions as well as people 65 years and older — are at higher risk for complications from the flu.

Overall, the vaccine is 47 percent effective against the strains circulating this season, according to a preliminary report from the CDC.

Compare that to the deadly 2017-2018 flu season, when its effectiveness was just 36 percent.

Regardless, it’s better than having no protection against the flu, public health officials said.

“Flu vaccine effectiveness can vary each season depending on the match between the strains in the vaccine and the flu viruses that are circulating, as well as the age and health of the person being vaccinated,” Maki said. “Unvaccinated people are at higher risk of flu illness themselves, and they pose a higher risk of transmitting flu to others.”

What can you do to protect yourself and others from the flu?

Whatcom County Health officials made the following recommendations.

Get vaccinated: It’s the best protection against the flu. The vaccine is recommended for those 6 months and older.

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.

If you’re sick: Stay home from work and school. Stay away from those who are ill.

“I would argue it’s probably still not too late to get a flu vaccine. It takes about two weeks to kick in, but if you haven’t gotten it, it’s still worth it,” Lynch said.

More tips are offered at KnockOutFlu.org.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.