The flu strain that has been making many sick in Maryland and around the country may be peaking, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to cease precautions and skip the flu shot.
Other strains could circulate, keeping the flu around for months.
Overall, the intensity of flu-like illnesses in Maryland remains high, according to the latest Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report for the week ending Jan. 19.
The influenza virus was geographically widespread according to the last report, meaning there is flu activity throughout different regions, said David Blythe, a medical epidemiologist with the state. While the virus is difficult to predict, he said there is a possibility the flu has peaked and is headed toward a decline.
Even though the H3N2 strain has predominated this flu season, people could contract other strains and respiratory viruses, such as parainfluenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The flu vaccine can protect against these different strains and viruses.
It’s not too late to get vaccinated, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to call more than one provider to find an available vaccine, because the vaccine is more difficult to find than it was earlier in the flu season.
Donald Milton, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, said this flu season seems unusually bad because there was a mild flu season last year.
Milton oversees a research study that aims to find out how much people shed into the air when they have the flu. The study will also look at how long the flu takes to spread from person to person.
“We’re actively recruiting people to come early in their flu if they should be so unlucky to get it,” he said. “We want to test them as soon as possible to see how much virus they are shedding into the air, as a way to tell how infectious people are.”
Blythe said the H3N2 strain is typically more severe than normal flu, which is one reason why this flu season feels more intense. The flu is most common among young people between the ages of 5 and 24.
Despite the increased flu activity, hospitals have been able to handle the influx of patients.
“I know people who have been sick, and that’s had a big impact on them and their families, but in terms of things like hospitals functioning, of course they’re still functioning,” Blythe said.
In Annapolis, where legislators, lobbyists and the public come together for 90 days of handshaking and lawmaking, the legislature is operating as normal despite the intensity of the flu season.
Delegate Mary Washington, D-Baltimore, said it’s been business as usual. She relies on people paying attention to the CDC and the news to figure out what measures they want to take.
“You can’t overestimate what can happen,” she said. “We’re in a very close space with each other constantly, and if someone’s not feeling so well, they should stay home. But because we’re working so hard and we’re only here 90 days, the tendency to work through your illness is just there.”
Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, said she hopes communication about the flu will start earlier next season so it will be more preventable.
“I’m sorry (the media) didn’t make the big fuss earlier because it seemed like the news was there after there were a lot of cases, so it seems we need to prevent earlier … I didn’t get (a flu shot) because I hadn’t even focused on it until I saw the really serious news.”