What to do about the flu

Marcia Statz, the nurse for the South Whidbey School District, checks on the health of Jenna Milne, a seventh-grader at Langley Middle School. As an outbreak of the flu has wound down in the schools, students who had gone home sick in  recent weeks have been coming back to class.  - Gayle Saran
Marcia Statz, the nurse for the South Whidbey School District, checks on the health of Jenna Milne, a seventh-grader at Langley Middle School. As an outbreak of the flu has wound down in the schools, students who had gone home sick in recent weeks have been coming back to class.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

It’s that time of year when people congregate for holiday parties, concerts and programs, and malls are crowded with shoppers.

It’s also flu season, when transmitting viruses is the unintended consequence of close contact with others. That’s why county health officials are urging Whidbey Islanders to get their flu shots — something they probably should have done early in the fall, but can still benefit from now.

For residents of Washington state, flu season is earlier than usual this year. Roger Case, Island County Health officer said this week that Washington state is experiencing a higher number of flu cases than most states. He also said the flu season hit the state two months earlier than usual. However, he said early influenza activity does not necessarily mean there will be a longer, shorter, or more or less severe flu season.

“Just because it’s early, Case says, “don’t expect it to finish sooner.”

Last month, hundreds of South Whidbey students were out of school for about a week as the flu spread from classroom to classroom. As of this week, fewer children were having to stay home sick as the flu seemed to near the end of its latest course.

Those school children are not alone. Washington is one of 10 states in which the flu has become widespread, according to the national Centers for Disease Control. Roger Case credits Washington’s reporting system for one of the reasons the state is so high on the CDC’s target list.

At the moment, the prevalence of the illness among both children and adults has the county’s health department busy fielding phone calls. A recent death in Snohomish County due to the flu has a lot of people contacting the heath department.

“We have been getting a couple calls a minute,” Case said.

It didn’t help that the department’s voice mail system was out this week. Callers were often getting a busy signal instead of a public health nurse.

For those who do get through, Case and the health department are encouraging callers to get flu shots.

“It’s not too late to get a flu shot,” Case said.

For those most vulnerable to infection — infants and toddlers between ages of 6 months and 2 years, people with asthma or immune deficiency diseases, women in the third trimester of pregnancy and the elderly — a flu shot is an absolute must, Case said.

Flu vaccines being given this flu season contain dead flu cultures to inoculate people against three common varieties of the virus. One common strain of flu not covered by this year’s vaccine but, according to health officials, a flu shot will afford some protection.

Because of the contagious nature of the flu virus, school students — who gather in large groups each day in school buildings — are the first to suffer a large infection outbreak. South Whidbey schools have already experienced a higher-than-normal absentee rate, especially at the high school. But so far this month, schools are reporting more normal absentee rates.

Marcia Statz, the school district’s nurse, said, for example, 19 children were absent from the South Whidbey Intermediate School Thursday. Seven had been out all week, but otherwise, the absentee rate was about normal.

South Whidbey High School was the hardest hit by the flu. But the students are getting better.

“We are getting a little breather right now,” said John Cruz, attendance manager at the high school. “Last couple of days we have between 70 and 80 students out, compared with 200 several weeks ago.”

That’s still higher than average, 45 to 50 absentees per day.

Statz said high school age students who do get sick are getting the sickest, running 102- to 104-degree fevers for days. Younger students generally have cold symptoms and fevers around 100.

This weekend, the high school and other community spaces will be filled with people — some with the flu, some not — who are out two holiday shows, “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol.”

This hasn’t been a problem in terms of tickets sales for “A Christmas Carol,” which goes on stage at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts this weekend.

“We are not getting cancellations due to the flu,” said Shelley Sharp, the director of public information for WICA. “Some cast members have have sore throats including Bob Cratchet. But everyone is resting and taking care of themselves. The show must go on.”

For those already infected with the flu, Roger Case at the health department recommends using common sense.

“Rest and stay hydrated,” he said.

He said people who run a fever of 103 or higher should contact their doctors.

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