Flu season is coming early in parts of the United States.
For Matthew Willis, the public health officer for the county of Marin, the big question is: When will it arrive in force in Marin?
Willis said flu season's early arrival in parts of the East and Southeast U.S. likely means that it will arrive early for residents of Marin and across California.
“It’ll travel to us from the areas where it’s been detected early, and we might expect a slightly earlier than normal spike in our incidents of influenza," Willis said. "But this is about the timing, not the severity - we have no reason to expect a more severe influenza season than normal at this time."
County data indicates that influenza circulation remains low in Marin. For the week of Nov. 18, the percentage of visits to Marin General Hospital and Novato Community Hospital emergency departments and the Sutter Terra Linda Urgent Care Center that were associated with influenza-like illness decreased to just 0.2 percent. Just 4.5 percent of the specmens tested by the county tested positive for influenza, below the 10 percent threshold that indicates increased levels of virus circulation, Willis said.
"We have mechanisms in place to detect that (early arrival)," Willis said. "All it does is reinforce our existing messaging around influenza.”
That messaging is repeated with each arrival of flu season:
- Cough and sneeze into your elbow
- Wash your hands frequently and for at least 30 seconds with soap
- Don’t go to work or school if you are sick
- Get a flu shot
That final point - getting a flu shot - remains critical, Willis said.
But it also can be a tough sell, particularly in the wake of a recent New York Times story that drew from a report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The report concluded that influenza vaccinations provide only modest protection for healthy young and middle-age adults, and little if any protection for those 65 and older, who are most likely to succumb to the illness or its complications.
“We have overpromoted and overhyped this vaccine,” Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, as well as its Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, told the Times. “It does not protect as promoted. It’s all a sales job: it’s all public relations.”
Despite the controversy, Willis said the influenza vaccine "is our best line of defense and has been known to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms, as well as to reduce the mortality rate from influenza."
More than one-third of U.S. residents have already been vaccinated against the influenza virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week.
Although data from Google's Flu Trends does not include info specific to Marin, it does indicate that flu cases are lower in the San Francisco region than they are now.
Influenza—more commonly known as simply "the flu"—is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. It spreads via infected people coughing, sneezing or talking, though people can also get infected by touching something with the flu virus on it before touching their mouth, eyes or nose.
The 2012-2013 season is shaping up to be one of the worst flu seasons in a while, officials from the CDC said in a teleconference last week. According to the latest CDC Flu activity report, influenza levels are on the increase across the country. Five states – Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee – are reporting flu rates not normally seen until January, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The flu season normally peaks in January and February.
Holiday travel and more time spent indoors due to soggy weather will contribute to the spread of the flu virus, so now is the time to get vaccinated, CDC officials emphasized.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following information:
- Who should get vaccinated
- When to get vaccinated
- Selecting a flu vaccine
- Symptoms, complications and severity
- Treatment if you get the flu
- How flu spreads
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said.
So far, California and surrounding states have not reported regional or widespread flu activity; however, a jump in the number of influenza cases usually doesn't occur until after Christmas.
“Flu season typically peaks in February and can last as late as May,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service and Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement. “We are encouraging people who have not yet been vaccinated to get vaccinated now.”
The flu virus tends to spread faster during peak holiday travel times.
Symptoms of the flu include muscle or body aches, headaches, cough, sore throat, fatigue, fever or chills, and vomiting and diarrhea (the latter two are more common in kids). The flu can also worsen chronic medical conditions or cause death.
People are contagious a day before symptoms appear and up to a week after getting sick.
The CDC recommends getting annual vaccines as early as possible, as it takes a few weeks to reach full immunity. Vaccines often cost $20-$30; however, they are often covered by insurance.
Flu shots are an inactivated vaccine made from killed virus, which means it’s impossible to get the flu from the vaccine, according to Dr. Angela Rasmussen, an infectious disease expert.
There are currently three flu shots being produced in the U.S.: the regular (intramuscular) seasonal flu shot, a high-dose vaccine for people 65 and older, and an intradermal (injected into the skin) vaccine for people ages 18 to 64.
In addition, a nasal-spray flu vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses (which also do not cause the flu) is available to healthy people ages 2 to 49 years old, except pregnant women.
The most common side effect from a flu shot is soreness at the injection site.
The elderly, young children, pregnant women and nursing home residents are at greater risk for serious complications from the flu. People with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and chronic lung disease—as well as those who work with them—are also at risk.
“People at high risk should talk with their doctor about getting a high-dose flu shot, as this can provide better protection for people with immune systems that have been weakened by age or other medical conditions,” Rasmussen said.
People with severe chicken egg allergies, a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and those who have had a severe reaction to a flu vaccine in the past should consult their doctor before getting a flu shot, and those who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until they are well. Babies under six months of age should not get a flu shot.
Vaccine Info for Marin Residents
If you're considering getting a flu shot, here are some places in Marin to do so. To find the location nearest you, use the Flu Vaccine Finder at the top of this page.
- CVS - 150 Donahue Street, Marin City
- Passport Health - 28 Mitchell Blvd., San Rafael
- CVS - 909 Grand Ave., San Rafael