The nationwide, flu-viruses epidemic continues to take its toll locally.
As of late February, the Eastern Sierra is still seeing widespread levels of influenza and a sharp increase in the stomach flu bug – with medical visits to match.
“Clinics, doctor’s offices and emergency departments are still showing an increased number of visits for respiratory illness,” Inyo-Mono Public Health Officer Dr. Richard Johnson said. There have been “half a dozen hospitalizations between Mono and Inyo counties,” he added, “but no deaths.”
Forty-eight states have already reported widespread flu outbreaks this year, “with the earliest onset since 2003-04,” states a Feb. 14 Mono County Health Department press release.
Although the flu tends to spread most quickly in “congregate settings” like day cares, schools and long-term care facilities, the elderly are the most endangered demographic, said Johnson. Fortunately school absences haven’t reached the 20 percent threshold, which is a flag that might initiate further investigation by Public Health, he said.
“Hopefully this is as bad as it’s going to get and we’ll see a decrease over the next couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “We tend to mirror what is happening in Southern California” due to the many visitors to the Eastern Sierra from that region. A decline in Southern California would hopefully signal a decline here, Johnson added.
The eastern U.S., where the epidemic started, is seeing a decrease in cases of flu virus infection but both Inyo and Mono counties are “still showing widespread” infection. The most recent outbreak is in Lee Vining – starting Feb. 10 – where 40 people have been hit by Norovirus, Johnson said.
A true influenza is characterized by a cough, sore throat and runny nose, Johnson explained. Headache, body aches and high fever are usual, too. However, Norovirus is another prolific culprit ransacking the Eastern Sierra right now. It is not related to the flu though it is commonly called stomach flu.
Johnson said this season’s Norovirus is a new Australian strain and that could account for the increase in the numbers of infection this year, over previous years. “People haven’t had a chance to build up immunities to it.”
While it is commonly thought that Norovirus is caused by food poisoning, “it is not so much the food” as the food handlers who spread the virus, Johnson said. It spreads quickly in hotels, restaurants, potlucks and so on, as well as in the aforementioned congregate settings.
Although people usually get better in one or two days, they “are contagious from the moment they feel sick until at least three days after they recover and perhaps even longer,” Johnson said. “Feeling sick” includes symptoms like stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea.
“Each year, in the U.S., there are about 20 million cases with 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths,” he said. Young children, the elderly or people with other health conditions are most susceptible due to dehydration which can result in hospitalization and even death.
Johnson highly recommends following flu-virus prevention and treatment advice: get a flu shot, wash hands frequently, stay home if sick, drink lots of fluids, cover coughs with arms or sleeves and, if one is concerned, visit a healthcare provider, especially if one is pregnant and has a chronic medical condition.