WESTFIELD, NJ — The New Jersey Department of Health has reached out to local schools to inform administrators and teachers of the severity of this year’s flu virus. According to Laura Scanlon, the public health nursing supervisor at the Westfield Regional Health Department, the message from the DOH was clear: “It’s serious and in some cases can cause death.” (The Westfield Regional Health Department serves Fanwood, Garwood, Mountainside, New Providence, Roselle Park, Summit, Westfield, and Chatham.)
According to Dr. Corey Smith, the Medical Director of Urgent Care at Summit Medical Group, the end of flu season is not in sight.
“We have not come close to hitting the end of this season,” said Smith, who added that SMG Urgent Care facilities have seen a marked increase in the volume of patients suffering from flu-like symptoms. To keep up with demand, Smith said that Summit Medical Group has increased the number of staff, including doctors, physician assistants and nurses.
According to Smith, out of the 72 patients who came into the SMG Livingston Urgent Care center last Wednesday, 40 tested positive for the flu.
“Influenza is here. The numbers are up this season,” he said.
Dr. Robert J. Roland, section chief of infectious diseases at Overlook Medical Center, said that national data shows that 6.6 percent of all patients seeking medical care in the week ending January 27 were seeking care for flu-like symptoms. According to Roland, this is the highest level of activity recorded since the 2009 pandemic, which had a percentage of 7.7 percent, as reported by the CDC.
Roland said that the first and most important step to preventing the flu is to get your flu vaccination every year — a recommendation that is echoed by most healthcare providers, who say it’s still not too late to receive the vaccination for the season. Contrary to myths surrounding the vaccine, the vaccination cannot cause the flu, Roland said.
Pharmacist Brian Pinto of Tiffany Natural Pharmacy in Westfeld said he’s also seen an increase in concern over the flu this year.
“There is a renewed interest and concern,” he said. In the last two weeks alone, Pinto said, he’s given out an additional 50 flu shots per week.
Pinto said that anyone ages 7-11 can get the vaccine at a pharmacy, but they are required to have a prescription from a doctor. Individuals ages 12-17 require a form of parental consent and anyone 18 years or over can simply walk in and get vaccinated while pharmacies have a supply. For children under 7, a doctor or nurse must administer the vaccination.
Despite some larger local pharmacies having an issue with shortage and supply, Pinto said that Tiffany has plenty of vaccines in stock this season. But he said that there is a concern over the nationwide shortage of Tamiflu, the prescription that helps to shorten the length of illness and helps diminish the spreading of the virus from one person to another.
Because of the shortage, pharmacies are now allowed to develop a “copycat” medication that uses the Tamiflu capsules.
“Normally we wouldn’t be able to make a copycat product, but because it is on a national back order and it is considered a health emergency, we are able to compound the product,” Pinto said.
In order to get Tamiflu or the “copycat” product, a patient must have a prescription from their doctor. But SMG’s Dr. Smith says this might not always be the best course of treatment.
According to Smith, after the first 48 hours, many treatments are ineffective and risks can often outweigh the benefits. Possible side effects include headaches, nausea and psychosis, he said. Smith said that the best treatment plan for those suffering from the flu or flu-like symptoms is to stay home, stay hydrated and control the fever and the body aches with over-the-counter medication.
Roland added that most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs.
“If you experience flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care,” Roland said.
According to Roland, people in high-risk groups — which include young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease — should seek early medical attention if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms. But individuals who do not fall into the high risk groups should not go to an emergency room if they are only mildly ill.
What are flu-like symptoms? According to the CDC and local medical professionals, flu-like symptoms include the following:
- Fever (100.4 or higher)
- Sore Throat
- Runny or Stuffy Nose
- Muscle or Body Aches
- Children may experience vomiting and diarrhea
When should you seek emergency care? If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the below symptoms and have either been diagnosed with the flu or have flu-like symptoms, especially if you are in a high-risk population, Smith said that you should seek additional medical attention.
- If you can’t stay hydrated
- If your fevers are not breaking (100.4 or higher)
- If you are becoming more lethargic
- If your cough is becoming more productive
- If you’re experiencing shortness of breath
According to Smith, flu-related deaths are often caused by complications from the flu.
“There are several reasons why someone might die. The virus could cause complications like viral meningitis, pneumonia on top of flu, or dehydration,” he said.
Summit Medical Group briefly ran out of the rapid response flu test, but Smith said that the plan of care is the same for confirmed cases and those with flu-like symptoms, especially because the test has been known to report false negatives.
“We treat the patient and not the test,” Smith said, adding that the group still sees and treats patients regardless of whether or not the rapid flu test is available.
“If you have the symptoms, assume you are sick and stay home,” said Smith. He said that individuals can be contagious one day before symptoms develop and up to a week after being sick.
Are you looking for a vaccine? Many local pharmacies are experiencing a supply challenge with vaccines. Call ahead to local pharmacies to inquire about vaccine availability. Scanlon said that the Westfield Regional Health Department does have a limited supply available and while they will prioritize children and the elderly, they encourage anyone to reach out if they are having difficulty getting a vaccination. There is a cash fee of $25 and an appointment is required. To make an appointment, call 908-789-4070 x4074.