LIVINGSTON, NJ — Anyone who has been able to remain healthy so far this winter cannot quite breathe a sigh of relief just yet, according to one local medical expert, who claims that the number of flu cases continues to increase. 

This season's strain of influenza has become widespread throughout Essex County in January.

According to Dr. Christopher Freer, DO, Clinical Chairperson of Emergency Medicine at RWJBarnabas Health, the good news is that it does not appear to be quite as severe a strain as that which was going around in other recent winters. The bad news, however, is twofold: it is affecting a large portion of the population locally, and it doesn't appear ready to abate anytime soon.

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Emergency rooms, including the one at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, have been extremely busy in January, according to Freer. 

"The flu hits a certain level and then stays at that level for three, four or five weeks," he said. "It might stay at this level for a little longer than that. We saw the flu hit that high level right after the New Year, and it is still in full swing. We will get the state surveillance reports, but once it hits a high activity level, it will stay at that high activity level for several weeks. This will continue for several weeks more."

Symptoms of the flu include body aches, fever, sore throat and headache, and, less frequently, nausea or loose stools, according to Freer, who added that the predominant strain this winter is Influenza B.

According to data published on nj.gov, flu activity for the week ending on Jan. 25 was "high" in every region of New Jersey, and has been since late December.

More people in Essex County and northern New Jersey have been catching the flu this winter relative to other recent winters, but Freer said that the proliferation of cases does not necessarily equate with how severe most cases are.

"You can't fully comment on its severity until the season is over, but what we are seeing now is that a high number are getting [the flu]," said Freer. "But we are not seeing a lot of hospitalizations here or deaths. It's more high in numbers and not as high in severity. More patients are walking flu patients who we can treat and release without them requiring hospitalization."

Because emergency rooms (ER) are dealing with a high volume of not just flu cases, but the normal range of other viruses that make the rounds in the winter, Freer advises that people who think they might be coming down with the flu should consult with their doctor first, rather than making the ER their first option.

"All activity is up in urgent care facilities, doctors' offices and the ER," said Freer. "People are also using telemedicine to a higher degree now. I do think people are savvy and educated enough that they know to call their doctor. If you don't have the access, you might end up [in the ER].

"Our challenge is, because we are seeing the high non-flu volume of winter patients, how do we separate flu patients from non-flu patients? This is the way of life every season in the emergency department now. In emergency departments, the norm is, you have to have a system, ask the right questions at triage right away and move them away from other patients."

Dr. Freer reinforced the time-honored advice that one of the best ways to avoid the flu is to wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water.

"Hand-washing is critical in any disease," he said. "The flu is its own influenza virus. There is not an antibiotic for it. Take lots of fluids, and control your temperature level with Tylenol or ibuprofen. Our bodies are capable of fighting this off."

He added that the flu typically lasts five-to-seven days. According to Freer, Tamiflu can shorten the flu by two days, but "only if it is taken within 24 hours of the onset of the flu."

Additionally, the Center for Disease Control (DCD) and the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) offer the following guidelines for avoiding the flu and preventing the spread of the flu:

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve, not your hands.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Wash hands often for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • Use alcohol based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Stay home if you are sick, especially with a fever.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects.