A Maryland child became the 54th pediatric fatality of the 2018 flu season as the number of flu-related hospitalizations in both the state and county continue to increase significantly, the Maryland Department of Health announced Tuesday.
Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene statistics show this year’s flu season – which typically runs from October to March – has seen 6.8 percent of visits to “sentinel providers” come from influenza-like illnesses, which is well above the 2 percent average usually seen during the week of Jan. 24 in a typical year.
“This year we know there has been a higher-than-average h3n2 cases which is a more severe strain of the influenza virus,” said Dr. Travis Gayles, the County’s Health Officer and Chief of Public Health.
Gayles said children and the elderly have been hit hardest by the more severe h3n2 strain of the influenza virus. County health officials’ response to this year’s more hard-hitting strains has included working with hospitals to monitor local cases and renewing a public relations campaign to remind people of the importance of hand washing and encourage them to be mindful of symptoms.
State observers consider flu activity high and widespread throughout Maryland. Since mid-January, some hospitals in Montgomery County have implemented restrictions on visitors in order to curb the spread of the virus.
Starting Jan. 18, Adventist HealthCare began prohibiting persons with flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, rhinorrhea and muscle aches from visiting patients at hospitals the company operates, including Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville and Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. Also banned from visiting patients are children younger than 12 years of age unless they are visiting a family member who is in end-of-life care.
“As we continue to see an increase in flu cases throughout our region and across the nation, Adventist HealthCare, along with other hospitals in the county, is taking steps to help limit the potential spread of influenza among our patients in our hospitals,” Adventist Healthcare spokesperson Shanna Muschik said in a statement. “In the past two weeks, we have seen approximately a 10-20 percent increase in the number of flu cases.”
This year’s flu season has seen 14,676 people – about double the number at this time last year and the highest number on record – hospitalized since October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the CDC uses laboratory testing to track flu cases, Maryland and Montgomery County officials use less exact statistical methods to keep tabs on the virus’ spread by tracking doctor and hospital visits for influenza-like illnesses, which are defined by flu-like symptoms including fever, sore throat, coughing, sneezing and chills. While influenza can be differentiated from flu-like illnesses by laboratory testing, few doctors recommend it since influenza and flu-like illnesses are addressed with the same treatments.
County officials say the last week has seen an uptick in the number of new cases, though they have not released exact numbers.