The coronavirus has captured the world’s attention in recent weeks, with more than 2,000 deaths reported worldwide, more than 75,000 cases reported in China and another 1,000 cases confirmed in locations around globe as of Wednesday.
Locally, however, it is the flu that has been of most concern to health officials.
So far this season, there have been 551 flu-related hospitalizations and nine flu-related deaths in Rhode Island, according to Joseph Wendelken, the public information officer for the state Department of Health. Six of those nine deaths were people age 65 or older.
Influenza-like illness has been designated as geographically widespread in Rhode Island since Dec. 26, while the activity level of the illness has been deemed high since Jan. 24. The most recent weekly update from the health department indicates that influenza activity increased from Feb. 2-8 as compared with the previous week.
The state’s rate of flu-related activity is higher than the rest of New England and the nation as a whole. According to state figures, compared with the previous flu season, the percentage of physician office visits for influenza-like illness in Rhode Island has risen from 6.67 percent to 8.71 percent.
The rate of influenza-like illness is 2.36 percent higher in Rhode Island than the rest of New England and 2.05 percent higher than the national rate this season.
The two major flu strains in Rhode Island are influenza A (H1N1) 2009 and influenza B Victoria, according to Dr. Hadeel Zainhah, who specializes in infectious diseases at Kent Hospital.
Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 – sometimes referred to as the “swine flu” – made headlines in April 2009 when it was first detected in the United States.
It’s still here. Health officials say influenza A is the dominant circulating strain as tested by the state’s health laboratories. According to Zainhah, 52 percent of influenza strains tested in Rhode Island state health laboratories have been identified as influenza A.
There has also been a rise in cases of influenza B in Rhode Island. According to Zainhah, influenza B has been more prevalent this season in Rhode Island than in years past.
“This year is different,” Zainhah said. “In general, we are seeing more influenza B compared to influenza A. More than previous seasons.”
The influenza B strain has made up 33 percent of the strains tested in Rhode Island state health laboratories. Since the flu season started, there have been 2,399 positive tests of influenza B in Rhode Island hospitals, making it the predominant strain detected in hospitals throughout the state compared to the 1,585 positive tests for non-subtyped influenza A strains.
Zainhah said the flu doesn’t make any exceptions in terms of who it affects. This flu season’s most affected age demographic, according to the health department, is those between 5 and 24 years old.
“More in the hospitals with the elderly,” Zainhah said. “But even young people are coming in with the flu. So no exceptions.”
According to health officials, vaccination for the flu is recommended for everyone older than 6 months. It is particularly important for pregnant women, people with chronic medical conditions, people 65 years of age or older and health care workers to be vaccinated.
Even though flu season is this far along, people can still protect themselves with a vaccination.
“The flu shot is very important. We recommend it in the beginning of the season starting in September,” Zainhah said. “It won’t protect 100 percent from getting the flu, but it will protect you from getting severe influenza.”
In addition to a vaccination, Zainhah and the Rhode Island Department of Health recommend the following preventive measures: washing your hands often throughout the day; cough or sneeze into your elbow; avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth; get plenty of sleep; and keeping surfaces clean by wiping them down with disinfectant.
No cases of the coronavirus had been reported in Rhode Island as of Wednesday.
Information regarding the flu can be found on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s website, health.ri.gov.