The number of reported flu cases spiked to 1,527 as of Jan. 17, up from 974 the prior week. Penobscot, Cumberland and York counties have been hit hardest. These figures reflect only the cases confirmed in a lab as influenza, so actual flu rates are even higher. Many people never get tested if their symptoms clearly indicate the illness.
Some of Maine’s most vulnerable residents are falling ill from the flu — children and the elderly. Just in the last week, 25 new flu outbreaks have been reported, with 19 in long-term care facilities, five in schools and one in an institution.
I wish I could tell you which facilities reported outbreaks. Maine CDC doesn’t identify individual facilities, unless the agency sees a need to publicly inform people who could potentially take some kind of action in response. Maine CDC Director Dr. Sheila Pinette said the schools reporting outbreaks — meaning at least 15 percent of their population is absent due to flu — are located in Kennebec, Aroostook, Somerset, and York counties.
Deaths from pneumonia and influenza are also on the rise, particularly among elderly residents with weakened immune systems, she said. Nationally, 26 children have died from the flu this season.
“We’ve have no pediatric deaths in our state this flu season which is a great thing,” Pinette said.
While flu deaths among children are rare, a child from central Maine died from the illness in 2012.
The predominant strain circulating in Maine and nationally is influenza A (H3N2), a nasty bug that sent many sufferers to the hospital in past years. While the flu vaccine isn’t very effective against that strain, it still works well against the other three types, public health officials stress. The vaccine also often leads to a milder case if you do get sick, according to the CDC.
Compared to many other states, Maine’s flu activity remains low. But the upswing over the last week could mark the beginning of a more intense season.
Pinette rattled off the flu prevention highlights in hopes of avoiding that outcome: wash your hands often, sanitize frequently touched surfaces including keyboards and phones, call your doctor right away if you experience symptoms, stay home if you’re sick, and cough into your sleeve or shoulder to avoid spreading germs.