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Influenze making its presence felt
It's early, and it's spreading
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After a relatively minor flu season last year, things got a little worse on the influenza front this year. However, it’s still a long ways from the dangerous influenza pandemics health authorities fear.

One thing that happened this year is that the flu season arrived early, according to Crawford County Public Health Director Gloria Wall. The early start during the holidays may have led to increased transmission, according to Wall and others familiar with the situation locally.

As of last week, there were three admissions of Crawford County residents to area hospitals for treatment of influenza. Most hospitalization occurs with those considered to be at risk because of their age (seniors and infants) or existing health conditions. Locally, all three cases involved patients over 65 years of age.

Typically, those admitted to hospitals are treated for trouble breathing or exhaustion. Flu patients admitted to the hospitals were suffering from exhaustion, muscle aches, high fever and respiratory problems. They have come through the emergency room because “they’re that sick,” Wall explained.

The good news is that flu shots administered this fall and early winter contained a vaccine that was well matched for the strains of Influenza A virus present in the community this year, according to the county’s director of public health.

“It’s almost a 100 percent match to the more serious Influenza A,” Wall said of the vaccine.

Unfortunately, it’s only about a 67 percent match to the less severe Influenza B virus strains. There are currently eight strains of influenza virus identified in the state of Wisconsin, Wall noted.

While healthcare providers like Wall are stressing the need for people to be immunized, they also want people to take steps to stop the spread of the infection by washing hands, and covering their mouth when they cough.

Statewide the flu season might be a little worse than it is in Crawford County with infection rates up four times what they were last year.

At Boscobel Area Health Care, 80 patients were tested for influenza and 27 (34 percent) tested positive, according to Theresa Braudt, the Assistant Administrator of Patient Care Services. Of those testing positive, 25 had one strain of Influenza A, one had one strain of Influenza B and the other tested positive for two different strains of influenza.

Baudt and Katy Tomten, the Director of Medical Surgery and Infection Control acknowledged there was a slight increase in cases over the previous year. BAHC has had two hospital admissions for influenza. One was a middle-aged patient and the other was a young child.

Vernon Memorial Healthcare in Viroqua had nine confirmed influenza cases admitted to the hospital as of last week. In testing, VMH found 47 positives. Of the positive tests 81 percent are for Influenza A and 19 percent are Influenza B. Numbers of influenza cases are pretty much a constant at VMH as of last week, neither increasing nor decreasing, reported Romelle Heisel, the VMH Infection Prevention Coordinator.

“While the number of seasonal influenza cases is up at VMH this year, it should be noted that seasonal influenza was mild in the previous two years,” Heisel pointed out.

Hospital treatment for influenza infection may typically include fluids for dehydration, oxygen to assist with breathing and antibiotics to stop the infection from turning into pneumonia.

Scientifically, the season began earlier than usual and so Wall feels the peak should come earlier, but doubted the county has seen the peak yet.

In cases of Influenza A infections where patients are getting very sick one option is to start a regiment of TamiFlu, a post-infection treatment. The drug produces the best results if it is started within 48 hours of the onset of infection.

TamiFlu has been in short supply in Viroqua at times, where pharmacies have run out at one point or another. However, there is a large supply of TamiFlu in the country and ordering more is not a problem at this point. Viroqua pharmacies continue to order supplies to keep up with the demand.

The Solar Town Pharmacy in Soldiers Grove also temporarily ran out of their supply last week, but ordered more. Pharmacist Heather Schaefer explained that the local pharmacy had only ordered one box of the drug because demand for the drug at the pharmacy is typically relatively low.

Schaefer attributed the difference in numbers of prescriptions for TamiFlu between Soldiers Grove and Viroqua to the preferences of physicians prescribing the drug. It seems Viroqua healthcare providers are much more ready to make the TamiFlu prescription, than healthcare providers in Soldiers Grove.

A TamiFlu prescription costs about $120 and health and insurance plans often don’t cover it, especially without a confirmed influenza test, Schafer noted.

Testing for influenza is another matter. Many local providers treat patients for influenza based on their symptoms and avoid the costly teat that would confirm the infection, Wall explained.

So, what about immunizations? Well, Crawford County Public Health and other providers still have plenty of vaccine and are urging people to get shots, but caution it takes two weeks for the immunization to take effect.

BAHC’s Tomten proudly noted that over 92 percent of the staff at the facility had been immunized against influenza this year.  BAHC does not mandate flu shots for employees but strongly encourages it. The facility’s 92 percent exceeds the state’s recommendation that at least 80 percent of the staff at a medical facility be immunized.

Is there any benefit to getting a second immunization if patients had one early in the fall? The answer is no, according to Wall and others. The local public health director cites the opinion of Director of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Tom Hawk that there is no value in receiving a second immunization.