Across the state and the country, this year’s influenza season is pronounced.
“What we’re seeing in Wyoming, really, is widespread activity across the state,” said Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti. “We’re seeing pretty high levels of activity and, really, nothing that’s different than what’s happening across the country.”
Influenza is a contagious viral infection that can be deadly for high-risk groups.
The New York Times reported last week that this year’s flu season is now more intense than any since the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Numbers nationwide are on track to meet or surpass the 2014-15 flu season, in which 34 million people contracted the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 died.
The primary strain of influenza this year, H3N2, is also prevalent in Wyoming.
“Historically, that particular strain is associated with more serious illnesses, more hospitalizations and sometimes more deaths,” Deti said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that this year’s vaccine is only 30 to 40 percent effective on the virus.
Deti said she didn’t have an exact number on effectiveness, but the strain is included in this year’s vaccine.
“Vaccinations are never perfect,” she said. “They never are a 100 percent guarantee or ironclad protection, but they are the best tool that’s available to prevent illness.”
There isn’t an official count yet for flu deaths across the state, but the Department of Health is aware of a few.
“We know anecdotally that there have been some deaths in Wyoming, but we don’t have a count,” Deti said. “To my knowledge there have been no pediatric deaths.”
An official review and count of deaths will be available after the flu season is over and the department conducts a review of death certificates.
Across America there were 37 total pediatric deaths as of Jan. 26.
Not always by the numbers
Deti cautioned against seeing the Wyoming Department of Health’s end-of-week flu season summary counts as precise. Though they help medical professionals approximate influenza activity across the state, the data isn’t representative.
She warned against people seeing the numbers and “reading more into them than they should.”
“They are really not accurate,” Deti said. “We know that they are far, far less always than the number of illnesses that are truly going around.”
The official count is usually lower than reality for a variety of reasons. For starters, not everyone with influenza goes to the doctor and is properly diagnosed.
“If you don’t go to the doctor we’ll never know you’re ill,” Deti said.
Compounding the lack of accuracy is a disparity of testing and reporting methodologies between doctors and counties. The lack of consistency makes comparisons statewide somewhat inaccurate.
“There are inconsistencies,” Deti said. “Some places just report differently. Some communities have more active reporters than others.”
Of the 1,093 reported cases statewide, only 15 were reported in Teton County by Dec. 30, the most recent data posted by the Wyoming Department of Health.
Teton County School District No. 1 officials said they weren’t seeing more absences than normal at this time last year. Some school districts around the country have closed due to the number of students with flu-like symptoms.
When asked if flu activity would slowly start to decline and if the state has seen the worst of it, Deti said, “We don’t know yet if we’ve reached the peak. We don’t know how long high levels of activity will continue. It’s too soon to say.”
What you can do
It’s not too late to vaccinate.
Deti said that if citizens still have access to vaccinations “it’s a good idea.” But the vaccine takes two weeks to become effective.
“We want people to take the flu seriously,” Deti said.
“If you do become ill, most likely you’ll be miserable, but you’ll be able to recover,” she said. “But we have people who really struggle with recovery. Every year we see hospitalizations, and every year we see deaths.”
Covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing is one prevention strategy.
If you think you have influenza, Deti recommended considering the use of antiviral medications like Tamiflu, which can lessen the severity of symptoms and the length of illness.
If you do become ill, limiting your access to others is key to keeping the flu from spreading.
“Don’t go to work, don’t go to school,” Deti said. “Don’t take the risk that you’re going to spread that to someone who can’t bounce back.”