With flu season starting to peak, doctors on Long Island and across New York State are encouraging anyone still unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves for a shot.
Since the season started in October, 3,283 laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu have been reported statewide to the State Department of Health. One child died of the illness, and 923 people of all ages have been hospitalized, according to numbers compiled by the state from physicians and hospitals. The peak flu period runs from this month into February.
The majority of the cases, reported from New York City, have been caused by the dominant A-strain of influenza, called A/Singapore H3N2, which is one strain the flu shot protects against, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's not too late to get vaccinated," Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of health care epidemiology and assistant professor of infectious diseases at Stony Brook University's Renaissance School of Medicine, wrote in an email.
Mary Ellen Laurain, a spokeswoman for the Nassau County Department of Health, urged residents 6 months of age and older to get their flu shot.
Donelan also advised anyone who isn’t feeling well to be mindful about possibly exposing others.
"Stay home if you are sick, regardless of whether you ‘think’ you may or may not have the flu," Donelan added in the email. "There are a number of viruses out there circulating and any one of these may make someone else sick enough to be hospitalized, even if you are only mildly ill."
Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases for the Northwell Health system, also stressed the importance of getting the vaccine, which if it doesn't completely prevent the illness, will modify its severity. The vaccine protects against four strains of influenza.
"I think the mistake many people make is that they think that if they get the flu after getting a flu shot that it was a failure," Farber said. "But many times, although it didn't prevent it, it made the flu less severe and can prevent hospitalization or complications."
Health officials underscore that state figures are lower than the actual number of flu cases because most people do not seek medical attention.
Other seasonal respiratory viruses in circulation include respiratory syncytial virus — RSV — coronavirus, rhinovirus, enterovirus, human meta-pneumovirus and parainfluenza virus, which despite its name, does not cause the flu.
The flu remains an ongoing health concern not only because of its contagiousness, but also because of its capacity to morph into pneumonia, which can be deadly.
Unvaccinated health care workers must wear "surgical" or "procedure" masks in the presence of patients, according to a state law in effect since the 2013-14 flu season.
“Health care personnel are routinely exposed to sick patients and are also in close contact with vulnerable patients,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement. “The requirement that unvaccinated health care personnel wear a mask when patients are nearby protects both our critical health care workforce and at-risk New Yorkers."
An estimated 80,000 people died nationwide during the 2017-18 flu season, a total that included 200 children, according to the CDC. It was the highest flu-death toll in 40 years.
The high number of deaths arrived in the 100th anniversary year of the 1918 flu, the worst flu season in human history. An estimated 675,000 people died in the United States and 50 million worldwide. Within months, the pandemic killed more people than any other infectious illness in recorded history.
Simple measures can help limit influenza's spread.
"Cover your coughs and sneezes," Donelan said, "and perform hand-hygiene with either soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs after blowing your nose. Avoid touching mucous membranes such as your eyes, nose and mouth."
Importance of vaccinations
- Everyone 6 months of age or older should receive an influenza vaccination.
- The vaccine is especially important for people at high risk for complications, such as pneumonia.
- People at elevated risk include children under age 2; pregnant women; adults over age 65; and people with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, cancer, heart disease and HIV infection.
SOURCE: State Health Department/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How to limit spread of influenza
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Perform hand hygiene with either soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs after blowing your nose.
- Avoid touching mucous membranes such as your eyes, nose and mouth.
SOURCE: Dr. Susan Donelan, Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine