Flu season typically kicks into high gear in January, and this year is no exception

The latest weekly report from New York state health officials shows flu cases up nearly 50 percent statewide — an upward trend that is expected to continue.

“We are seeing flu ramping up,” said Mary Beer, Ontario County Public Health director. Flu season hasn’t peaked locally — it’s much more active downstate, Beer said in an email. But with kids back in school from holiday break, it presents a perfect storm for the annual scourge of flu.

Though Beer had not heard of a surge in area hospitals, “it’s coming,” she added.

At UR Medicine Thompson Health, most of the cases seen so far this season have been in outpatient settings, said Kurt Koczent, Thompson Health executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“To date, we have only had four people with the flu admitted to the hospital as inpatients. In fact, at this point, we are seeing more cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) than we are flu,”  said Koczent in an email. RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults.

“This past Friday, our report from the state had this year’s flu season trending on par with last year,” said Koczent. “It is unknown if there will be a steep incline in confirmed flu cases as there was last year. It is still too early to tell. The best advice we can give is to get your flu shot, stay home if you are ill,  and wash your hands,” he said.

In late January last year, Thompson Health saw triple the number of patients testing positive for flu compared with the previous year. Cases had reached 261 as of Jan. 21, 2018, compared with 93 cases as of that date the previous year. The 2017/2018 flu season was particularly bad. As of Jan. 18, 2018, the weekly rate of New Yorkers hospitalized with influenza was the highest it had ever been since the state Department of Health began reporting in 2004.

You can check on what’s happening with flu across the state via the state Department of Health Flu Tracker. For the latest (the week ending Dec. 29) it was the third week of widespread activity. Statewide, the number of patients hospitalized with lab-confirmed flu cases was 773, a 92 percent increase over the previous week. For Ontario County, based on its 100,000 population, reported cases were at a rate of between 5 and 9. Ontario County had its first confirmed case of flu this season in October.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) changed up the flu shot this year to deal with the different flu viruses that are constantly changing, and it also names the different viruses. The predominant strain this season is the H1N1, the same strain that triggered the flu pandemic in 2009. Dr. Edward Walsh, head of the Infectious Diseases Department at Rochester General Hospital, said predicting flu season is hard to do but he doesn't anticipate it'll be bad thanks to vaccinations.  

"The population as a whole starts to become immune and so the illnesses tend to not be as severe as the 2009 year," explained Walsh. In 2009, H1N1 was a new strain that has since been added to flu vaccinations. "Individuals who become infected can still be very sick," said Walsh, who indicated this strain impacts more children.

According to the CDC, there have been more than 1,000 flu hospitalizations nationwide since October — many of them for children under age four. The Monroe County Health Department reports 66 total flu cases this season, six of them at RGH.

Walsh says last flu season was one of the worse, second to 2009, with nearly 800 hospitalizations at RGH. The outbreak was so bad this time last year they had visitor restrictions on the hospital. Even with case numbers currently low, Walsh says the area hasn't hit the peak and advises families to get vaccinated. 

Includes reporting by news partner News 10NBC.