HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y.-With the official flu season now at full throttle, misery, hospitalizations and deaths are plaguing pockets of America while the numbers of those afflicted in New York continue to climb.
For only the week that ended Jan. 13, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 14,401 new laboratory-confirmed cases, bringing the season total to 74,562. And the New York State Department of Health said it received 6,083 laboratory-confirmed influenza reports, more than double the number of the previous week.
Connecticut’s death toll associated with this season’s particular strain of the virus, H3N2, was 21 as of Jan. 19—among its victims, a 10-year-old boy, of New Canaan. In New York, one death, another 10-year-old, from downstate (officials declined to provide the exact community), has been linked to the flu.
But the national numbers don’t seem to speak to what is going on in the communities of Yorktown, North Salem, Mahopac and Somers, where residents are either doing something right or suffering in silence.
In North Salem, Maria Hlushko, captain of the North Salem Ambulance Corps, said it has transported only one or two people with flu symptoms to health facilities.
Peg Eichorn, manager of the Van Tassell House at 98 Primrose St., a senior favorite in Somers, estimated it has experienced as much as a 25 percent decline in business.
“With our home-delivered meals, it’s been OK, because people are home, but with transportation and our on-site meals, we’ve gone down in volume,” she said.
The cause, however, is anyone’s guess—including snow and freezing temperatures.
“This is a crazy winter,” Eichorn said. “What I’m seeing usually does happen anyway in the winter months, more people signing on for home-delivered meals.”
Nagi Wissa, owner of Lake Mahopac Pharmacy, said he’s been administering about 10 flu shots a day, every day, this season. And, he said, it’s paying off. More people than ever are coming in to get the flu shot and consequently less are coming in to get Tamiflu, a medicine used to treat the flu, Wissa said.
For those worried about the shot itself, Wissa is the man to see.
“I’m confident. I’ve yet to have someone complain about my technique,” Wissa said. “Giving a shot is very hard to teach. You can’t teach someone to give a flu shot; you either have that skill or you don’t, but luckily, I have it.”
One of the broader measures in assessing the flu’s impact is to look at absences in public schools.
Mahopac Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dennis Creedon said that Mahopac Middle School reported five cases of flu as of Friday, Jan. 19.
“We have invested in a machine called Bio Plant, which is a disinfector,” Creedon said. “We are using a disinfectint call Buckeye E23, which is used in schools and buses.”
Creedon explained that the Bio Plant sends out a mist that doesn’t leave any residue on surfaces. Mahopac schools began the disinfecting protocol last week in the middle school and in Fulmar Road Elementary and then will use it in the remainder of their buildings. They will then repeat the process.
Lakeland school district spokesman James VanDevelde said flu absences were in the single digits. Dr. Ron Hattar, the district of Yorktown’s superintendent, said only a handful of students were believed to be out with the bug.
“Fortunately, at this time, the flu has not had a dramatic impact on the district,” Hattar said.
Meanwhile, Matt Carr, director of human resources for the Somers Central School District, and North Salem Superintendent Kenneth Freeston both reported no blips on their radars.
“Our custodial staff always remains vigilant and in the past, when we have the part of the year when germs tend to spread, our custodial staff is out rubbing down banisters and door knobs on a more frequent basis,” Carr said.
This virus, said by experts to be a rapidly mutating one, is driving “a severe flu season,” according to Dr. James Dwyer, chair of Emergency Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco.
“I think this one is a little bit different in the sense that we’re really seeing very high volumes very early in what would typically be considered flu season, and the acuity is higher, as well.” He added: “This is a very bad season, no question.”
Dr. Dwyer said the strain now circulating “is causing people to get a lot sicker, especially the vulnerable populations, the elderly or those with significant medical conditions.
“You’d have to look back to the swine flu to find a time where there was more of a volume of cases,” Dwyer said.
At NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor, Dr. Omar Al-Awwad said there is an uptick of flu patients in their E.R. compared to previous years.
“We follow a protocol that involves administering medications at the first sign of flu that we know will, oftentimes, reduce the severity and length of time the flu lasts in the patient,” Al-Awwad said.
Putnam County has reported 78 confirmed cases of the virus so far this season, more than in the past several years.
“That could be only a fraction of the actual cases because once it becomes widespread, doctors aren’t required to test for it or they would be inundated,” said Susan Hoffner, a health educator for the Putnam County Department of Health. “If the patient has the symptoms, they declare it the flu.”
Putnam Hospital Center’s Laura McDonald, RN, Infection Prevention and Control, explained that the hurricanes over the summer may have contributed to the spread of the flu.
“When you have pockets of people who aren’t vaccinated, the disease can really take hold,” McDonald said. “It’s what’s called ‘herd immunity.’ If I get the flu and nine out of 10 people are immune, I might pass it on to the one person, and they might pass it on to one person. But if five out of the 10 people are not immune, those five can now get the flu. And maybe they can pass it on to five more people, and those five people can pass it on, so it spreads out in concentric circles. So the less immunity you have in your population, the quicker a disease is going to spread. Which is why everyone pushes for high levels of immunization.”
Every health professional interviewed for this article urged best practices such as hand washing, getting plenty of sleep and covering up sneezes in order to prevent the spread of flu.
“If you do feel down – with sudden onset fever (above 101), body aches, and generally feeling badly, go see a doctor and get Tamiflu,” said Dr. Rajesh Gupta, director of medicine at AFC Urgent Care Yorktown. “They say to take Tamiflu 24-48 hours from the onset of symptoms, but new studies have suggested that even if it is 72 hours or later and you still aren’t feeling well, that you should get this anti-viral. It will minimize your symptoms and even though it is a five-day course, many people start to feel better after the first or second dose. It lowers the viral load, which is what is causing you to feel so poorly. You may still have a runny nose or other “cold like symptoms,” but your overall feel will be greatly improved.
The Putnam County Department of Health has scheduled a flu clinic for all those who live and/or work in New York State, including those aged 6 months and older. The clinic is slated for Tuesday, Jan. 30, from 2 to 6:30 p.m., at the health department’s main office at 1 Geneva Road in Brewster. The fee is $25 (cash or check only) or free for those with a Medicare card. In case of inclement weather, call the flu hot line at 845-808-1390 or visit the PCDOH’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/putnamhealth for notification of postponement. The snow date is Thursday, Feb. 1, from 2 to 6:30 p.m. at the health department.
Yorktown News editor Brian Marschhauser, Mahopac News editor Bob Dumas, North Salem News/Somers Record editor Jodi Weinberger and staff writer Jeremy Brown contributed to this article.