The flu outbreak has been severe compared to recent years, but that doesn't mean it's too late to protect yourself.
The virus is continuing to bring in patients, but area health officials say it's not too late for flu prevention.
Overall, 9 percent of outpatient visits in the state for the first week of February involved influenza-like illnesses, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the FDA, a vaccine received later in the season, around January or February, can still be effective in warding off the virus.
Many providers in ENC still have a supply of flu vaccines, including area health departments.
The Jones County Health Department is still offering flu vaccines for those interested.
“They’re predicting it (flu season) to run even into May so even if you haven’t had your flu shot yet, you can still get it and it will still help,” Anne Picke, nursing supervisor and communicable disease nurse for the Jones County health department, said.
Not only is it never too late for prevention, receiving a flu shot may lessen your symptoms should you get the flu, according to the CDC.
The Onslow County Health Department is also still offering the flu vaccine on a walk-in basis.
“We still recommend people do flu shots,” Pam Brown, Onslow County health department public information officer, said.
One of their available vaccines is the high-dose vaccine recommended for seniors 65 and over.
“There’s more antigen in it, so sometimes it works better for seniors,” Brown said.
Adding more antigen is designed to work better with immune systems in older people, she said.
Hand-washing is another big component in prevention, especially after coming into contact with the public or returning from a public place.
Diana Vettercraft, quality assurance specialist for the Craven County Health Department, said hand-washing is more effective in removing germs from your hands than using alcohol-based gel or hand sanitizer.
The CDC recommends using soap and water and scrubbing hands for at least 20 seconds or while singing “Happy Birthday” to yourself.
But in a pinch, hand sanitizer can clean hands on-the-go.
Another important method of prevention is avoiding passing it along when you’re under the weather by calling off work.
“Don’t go to work if you have a temperature, you don’t want to share that illness at the workplace,” Elizabeth Ricci, nursing director for the Duplin Health Department, advised.
Another concern is reports of low-stock flu kits. But for hospitals and health departments across ENC, the shortage is not a pressing concern.
Ricci said the test kits are not absolutely necessary to test patients for the flu.
“Not having a flu test doesn’t mean we can’t treat people for the flu,” Ricci said.
Plus, the test kits are not always 100 percent accurate, especially rapid tests that are time sensitive and often show false positive or negative results, according to the CDC.
“We (treat) based on the patient’s history and symptoms,” Ricci said.
Still, Ricci said she expects the vendors used by Duplin County to have the kits back in stock soon.
Onslow County Memorial Hospital announced it would not be conducting rapid flu tests due to the shortage in a press release Feb. 8. According to the press release, the shortage is nationwide and has put rapid flu tests on backorder due to high demand throughout the country.
The hospital can still test blood samples for the flu virus, but the turnaround time is slower and does not change the any initial treatment, according to the press release.
“About 30 percent of what we’re seeing in the emergency department right now is patients complaining of flu-like symptoms,” Amy Sousa, vice president of public relations for Onslow Memorial Hospital, said.
Sousa said the report of flu cases is much higher than normal.
“Before we quit doing flu tests this flu season, the hospital was doing twice as many flu tests as last year and this season started sooner,” Sousa said.
Vettercraft said she has not noticed a shortage of flu test kits or heard reports from her staff, but she does not work in the clinic on a day-to-day basis.
“What we’re seeing from looking at the past year, the number of flu cases are higher than last year,” Vettercraft said.
Why the numbers have gone up, she said, is tricky to tell, but overall respiratory illnesses have been high with colder weather.
“A lot of sinus issues and respiratory issues have been more prominent this time because we’ve had such an influx in weather,” Vettercraft said.
In Jones County, the health department doesn’t use flu test kits.
Picke said flu cases statewide have increased this year.
One possible explanation is an unsuccessful vaccine, Picke said. Because the flu virus can change very rapidly, it’s hard to predict exactly what kind of strain will be prevalent each flu season.
According to the press release from Onslow Memorial Hospital, this year’s outbreak is different from past years. The dominant strain this year is H3N2, the worst mutation.
New flu deaths totaled 34 the first weekend of February, all reported by providers submitting data to the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
A total of 140 flu deaths have been reported in the state since Oct. 1.
Reporter Kelsey Stiglitz can be reached at 910-219-8453 or kstiglitz@JDNews.com.