By Staff Reports
Winter has come, and with it so has the flu.
This year however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is monitoring cases of a new strain of coronavirus that was first identified in Wuhan, China.
Health authorities there have confirmed nearly 300 cases, including cases outside Wuhan City, according to the CDC. Several deaths have been reported.
Additional cases are being identified in a growing number of countries internationally, with the first case in the U.S. announced on Jan. 21.
Chinese authorities report most patients in the Wuhan City outbreak have been linked to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting a possible zoonotic origin to the outbreak. Chinese authorities additionally report that they are monitoring several hundred healthcare workers who are caring for outbreak patients; no spread of this virus from patients to healthcare personnel has been reported to date. Chinese authorities are reporting no ongoing spread of this virus in the community, but they cannot rule out that some limited person-to-person spread may be occurring.
There are ongoing investigations to learn more about the new strain, and the CDC has established an Incident Management System to coordinate a domestic and international public health response. The agency also issued an interim health alert advisory to state and local health departments.
Coupled with the developing coronavirus situation is an increase in the number of confirmed cases of the less common influenza B strain.
In a normal year, influenza A accounts for approximately 75 percent of cases with infections from influenza B make up the remaining 25 percent.
Of the total 2,540 infections in Virginia during the 2019-20 flu season, 647 (25.5%) were influenza A and 1,893 (74.5%) were influenza B, according to a report published by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) on Jan. 9.
“Most people won’t notice a difference between flu A and flu B,” Respiratory Disease Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health Emily Stephens said. “The symptoms are pretty much identical but the severity of illness caused by each virus differs by age group. Generally speaking, flu A is worse for older adults, especially the A(H3N2) subtype. Flu B is more severe and can lead to more complications in children.”
Stephens also said that there is a difference in the timing and intensity of the flu waves. Typically, influenza A is more common in the early to mid-winter months and influenza B peaks around late-winter and early spring, according to Stephens.
“One final difference is in the virus itself. Flu B mutates slower than flu A does, partly because it infects fewer species. Flu A can infect humans, poultry and waterfowl, pigs, horses, dogs, cats, bats, and a number of other species. Flu B is only known to infect humans and seals,” Stephens said.
Beth Holyfield, the head nurse for Martinsville Public Schools, said that the amount of influenza-related cases “is about as normal as every other year” and that there wasn’t a significant concern of an outbreak yet.
Nurse Coordinator for Patrick County Public Schools Sherrie Montgomery also downplayed the incidence rate when she said it’s “not a significant amount as of late.”
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) said that both influenza A and B are highly contagious. People with the flu are the most contagious in the 3–4 days after becoming ill. Symptoms tend to develop two days after the illness starts, so a person may pass on the flu before they feel sick. Flu viruses can also infect others from up to six feet away.
The number of visits to emergency departments (ED) and urgency care centers (UCC) for influenza-like illnesses remained mostly steady the first week in January at 7.2 percent compared to eight percent of visits the last week in December.
These numbers put Virginia at “widespread” level during the week ending Jan. 4, according to the VDH, making it the sixth time during the 2019-20 flu season that Virginia hit this level. In order to achieve widespread status, either an increased amount of labs are seen to have influenza-like illnesses or there has been more than one outbreak in three or more regions.
The outbreak seems to be mostly regional with northern and eastern regions reaching 10.8 percent and 7.9 percent of ED and UCC visits respectively. Southwest Virginia only saw 4.6 percent comparatively.
Those most at risk are women who are pregnant, people with certain chronic medical conditions, children younger than five and adults aged 65 or over.
Holyfield said there are plenty of steps that parents can take to minimize the likelihood of their child contracting the flu.
“Stay out of crowded places, make sure they wash their hands, make sure they are fed nutritious meals and that they get plenty of sleep so they don’t weaken their immune system,” she said, adding that “if your child is sick, please don’t send them to school. They are contagious and we don’t want more people to get sick.”