Flu has killed 140 people in NC this season – and experts expect it to get worse

Flu deaths in North Carolina have reached 140, with 34 of those from the most recent week, according to state statistics released Thursday.

The total number of deaths so far this season is more than than five times the 25 flu-related deaths for a similar period last year.

Many hospitals, including those of the newly named Atrium Health (Carolinas HealthCare System) and Novant Health’s Presbyterian Medical Center have restricted visits to patients by children 12 and under.

A new website and mobile app that tracks reports from doctors has ranked the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia area as a top flu hot spot, with the metro region ranked behind only the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington area.

A total 218 N.C. residents died from the flu last season, which stretched from October 2016 to May 2017. Most deaths occurred in February, March and April.

Nationwide, last season’s flu activity peaked in mid-March, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That was one of the later peaks on record. The flu season most commonly peaks between December and February, according to the CDC.

Around this time last year, about 5 percent of Atrium Health patients were seen for influenza-like illness, according to the health system. This season, that number was about 9 percent through last week.

Last year, Atrium saw a spike in cases later in the flu season around late February and early March. This year, there are more cases earlier.

Since there are still several weeks left in flu season, anyone over 6 months of age who has not yet gotten a flu shot can do so. The only exclusions are for people who have documented severe reactions to prior vaccinations. It takes about two weeks after getting the shot for your body to build up immunity to the flu.

The nasal spray should not be used during the 2017-18 flu season, according to health experts.

People should continue to take precautions to prevent spreading germs, including washing their hands and covering coughs and sneezes.

If employees don’t feel well, they should stay at home and not go to work.

At Novant Health hospitals, flu cases in the emergency departments are about about six times greater this year than for the same time last year, said Novant’s Dr. Charles Bregier.

“It’s certainly a very bad flu season,” Bregier said. He added that this season is one of the worst he has seen in his several decades of practice.

Bregier said it is difficult to determine whether we are at the peak of the flu season yet. Most epidemiologists say the peak is not here yet, and the season is going to get worse before it gets better, he said.

The recent rainy weather that keeps people inside and in close quarters can help the flu to spread more easily.

There can also be more than one peak during the flu season, so if cases fall off after this week, they could get worse again, he said.

“We certainly don’t want people to become complacent,” Bregier said.

Atrium Health has deployed its mobile hospital, MED-1, to Atlanta to provide much-needed beds to Grady Memorial Hospital. Construction on hospital grounds has reduced its bed count at a time when it has more patients than usual, due in part to the flu.

The MED-1 deployment is scheduled for 30 days, but that could be adjusted as needed.

Cassie Cope: 704-358-5926, @cassielcope