The Arizona Department of Health Services is reporting three times as many influenza cases at this time of year compared to previous seasons, prompting East Valley doctors to urge people to protect themselves from the flu.
A total of 3,354 flu cases have been reported as of Dec. 12. During the 2018-2019 flu season, there were only 804 flu cases reported at this time of year – meaning cases have increased 317 percent.
Many medical professionals are worried this could lead to an overall worse flu season.
“We always anticipate January and February being the worst, but we always get concerned when this first bump is coming pretty significantly. If those numbers are high, then we anticipate the second bump, which is traditionally always very high, is going to be a lot worse,” said Dr. Joseph Winchell, an emergency room physician at Banner Desert Medical Center and Cardon Children’s Medical Center.
In the past week, 944 laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported throughout the state, while the five-season average for this time of year is 229 cases. Of these confirmed cases, 70 percent have been influenza type B, according to AZDHS.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason to it,” Winchell said.
“In the summertime, the CDC makes an educated guess as far as what flu strand is going to hit us the hardest, but it’s what it is, an educated guess. We really don’t start getting truly good data and trends until the flu season starts,” he added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elevated levels of flu activity have been observed for the past four weeks nationally.
Arizona’s flu activity is categorized as “moderate,” while several neighboring states – including California, Nevada, and New Mexico – were categorized as “widespread.”
“We see these evident flows of flu cases; we had a really bad one in 2009, a really bad one in 2016 and 2017, so you just have these different strains and mutations and variations of the flu happen to hit the population pretty hard during any given flu season,” Winchell said.
Many hospitals across the Valley have also implemented earlier-than-usual flu season visitor restrictions.
One of the earliest restrictions implemented was at all Abrazo Health locations. On Nov. 25, Abrazo Health began restricting visitors under 12 from being, in patient, care areas.
Dr. Gary Smith, the chief medical officer at Mountain Vista Medical Center in Mesa, said he has noticed a significant increase in cases at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital.
“A lot of this is because ASU, which this hospital is in the backyard of. There’s been a number of those cases have come through Tempe St. Luke’s. And it’s where it is where we’ve seen the highest up-tick,” Smith said.
“Our other hospitals have had earlier cases than what’s typical,” he added. “Steward Medical Group, which is our outpatient services, also has seen earlier and increased numbers of cases as well.”
Although Winchell explained everyone is at risk for catching the flu, he said specific populations are at a higher risk.
“The people who are at risk for complications of the flu, which is what we worry about, are the extremes of age, the very young and the very old, pregnant females are also at risk because their immune system is compromised, and other folks with significant medical issues,” Winchell said.
Maricopa County Public Health announced the first pediatric flu death of the season. In a press release, the department said the infant was too young to receive a flu vaccine.
Dr. Kara Geren, an emergency medicine physician at Valleywide Health Medical Center, explained the flu affects babies differently than adults.
“Our flu tests also test for something called RSV, which is a respiratory syncytial virus. In most adults, it just causes a cold, but it’s really dangerous for little babies, especially when under a year. We’ve seen a good amount too,” she said.
Winchell, Smith, and Geren urged individuals to take action and to get flu shots.
If an individual does get the flu, they said, the best way to prevent the spread of the infection and prevent serious complications is to stay home.
“If a person feels like they have flu-like symptoms, they should stay home from work or school. They should not go out and run errands,” Smith said. “They should really self-quarantine to their own homes.”