The flu has arrived early.
Widespread influenza that has hit hard in places like Boston has also made its imprint on Western New York, with more reports of the flu about three or four weeks earlier than normal.
And those who are getting sick are staying out of work longer and fending off tougher symptoms.
“We’re seeing a lot of ill people,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner. “The hospitals have reported to us that, of the people they’ve seen in the emergency departments, a higher proportion are requiring admission to the hospital than usual.”
While the region is lagging behind the rest of the state when it comes to reports of emergency room visits for the flu, the message that doctors, health care leaders and hospitals were trying to spread Thursday was this: There’s still time to get the flu vaccine.
“One of the things about this surge right now is that it’s a bit earlier than usual because influenza can persist into April or even May,” said Dr. Steven Lana, of Delaware Pediatrics. “We’ve got a long row ahead, potentially.”
Like many doctor’s offices across the region, Delaware Pediatrics has seen an influx of telephone calls and patient visits during the last two weeks, with more people reporting flu-like illnesses. After a particularly mild flu season last year, influenza is now widespread across the state and much of the country.
Last year, the state saw 4,404 lab-confirmed cases during the entire season. The number of positive lab results has skyrocketed to more than 19,000 since October, State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav R. Shah told reporters Thursday. Those numbers represent only a small portion of the people who get the flu, since most patients with flu-like symptoms are not tested.
Burstein said that Erie County has seen more positive flu tests reported this year compared with previous years, as well as higher numbers earlier in the season starting about two weeks ago.
“Usually, it peaks at the end of January and February,” Burstein said. “We’re just about three or four weeks ahead of the game.”
The region, however, is not experiencing the type of outbreak seen in Boston, where officials declared a public health emergency this week because of the flu, Burstein said.
With reports of flu on the rise, some area assisted-living facilities and other places that work with vulnerable patients are limiting visitors and taking other precautions.
“Everybody’s radar is up right now,” said Barbara Tschamler, executive director of communications for ElderWood Senior Care. “Not every facility is asking visitors to limit their visits. Some are, but it really is for the benefit of the residents.”
Local emergency rooms also have been busy in recent weeks – but not all of those visits have been for the flu. Other upper respiratory illnesses and seasonal sicknesses are having an impact.
Dr. Brian D’Arcy, senior vice president of medical affairs for Catholic Health System, said the hospital system has seen an increase in the number of patients coming to emergency departments with flu-like symptoms. Overall volume of people coming to emergency departments also is up.
“It’s definitely placing a burden on the emergency departments,” D’Arcy said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
For example, he said, the emergency room at Sisters Hospital in Buffalo has seen between 130 and 155 patients per day during the last two weeks, compared with a typical average of 107 patients per day.
Michael Hughes, spokesman for Kaleida Health, said emergency rooms at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo General Medical Center and Women & Children’s Hospital have been “seasonal busy” but it’s not all related to the flu.
“Right now, it’s lower on the flu side and higher on the upper respiratory side, things like bronchitis and emphysema, things like that,” Hughes said.
Burstein, the county health commissioner, said the flu vaccine this year is a “good match” to strains prevalent in the community. Two new strains circulating in the community, she said, mean a flu shot from last year is not going to help.
“This year, the influenza strains are pretty much new strains that people don’t have any type of protection against unless they’ve received the flu immunization,” Burstein said.
Burstein recommends that anybody older than 6 months old get a flu vaccine, especially young toddlers and older patients, as well as pregnant women and people with medical conditions.
A flu shot is not absolute protection against getting influenza. Doctors also stress simple precautions to prevent spreading illness, including frequent hand-washing and covering your mouth with a tissue or arm during a sneeze or cough, rather than with your hand.
Flu symptoms include fever, cough, stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Burstein urged those who do experience flu-like symptoms to contact their health care provider to see if they should be evaluated. Most, but not all, people who get the flu will not need anti-viral treatments and can “self-manage” at home, she said.
“People who are infected with influenza should really have the expectation that it’s going to take a good week for them to feel better,” Burstein said. “So if you think that you have the flu and you’re not better the next day, that’s not a surprise. If you’re better the next day, then you probably don’t have influenza.”
Tom Precious of the News Albany Bureau contributed to this report.