So far, flu season has been relatively gentle on southwest Alabama.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the state’s southwest district, which includes Baldwin County, is leading the state as one of the places seeing the least number of doctor visits associated with flu-like symptoms. Officials said 5.9 percent of patients in this area report flu symptoms while the number across the state remains at 5.11 percent.
At Thomas Hospital, officials there treated 84 patients for influenza between Nov. 3, 2019 and Jan. 5, 2020, a staggering decline from the previous year which saw 139 patients in the same time period.
Between Nov. 1, 2019 and Jan. 20, 2020, South Baldwin Regional Medical Center in Foley treated 224 patients for influenza. The number of patients treated the previous year was unavailable by press time.
The Centers for Disease Control also reported a drop in flu activity for the past two weeks, however high levels of the virus remain active in 32 states, including Alabama.
Officials said they are hopeful that flu season is beginning to wind down, but it is still too early to tell. And, many places, including southern states, have faced a very different flu experience than in previous years.
Aarol Sheehan, director of the public information division of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said a strain of influenza B hit the southeast region hard and hit early. That strain usually doesn’t show up until the end of flu season. The switch caused early flu numbers to swell across much of the nation but also means flu cases now are disappearing quicker.
Sheehan also said since the B strain is one that more people have faced in previous years, the elderly population may have had a better immune response and suffered less illness and fatalities.
Unfortunately, younger populations have not had as much exposure to the B strain, resulting in higher cases of severe illness, especially in children. Nationally there have been 39 pediatric deaths this year attributed to flu, compared to 28 last season. Alabama has had no pediatric deaths in the 2019 -20 season.
Nationally, the CDC estimates so far this season there have been 13 million cases of the flu, 120,000 hospitalizations and 6,600 deaths. During the 2018- 19 season the CDC reported that 42.9 million people were sick with the virus, 647,000 people were hospitalized and 61,200 died. That season lasted 21 weeks, the longest the U.S. had experienced in a decade.
On average flu season lasts 13 weeks and peaks in January or February.
Both the CDC and local providers are urging anyone who has not received a flu vaccine yet to get one.