This flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent history, with experts anticipating tens of thousands of deaths from the virus.
The disease has already bared its teeth in Florida, where the Department of Health has called it "widespread." Hospital and doctors visits for flu-like symptoms have spiked, schools have closed and at least three children have died.
"We’re seeing sort of an unprecedented season in terms of activity," said Maggie Hall, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. "And people are getting sicker."
The season is now on track to equal or surpass that of the 2014-2015 flu season. In that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, 34 million Americans got the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 died. CDC officials expect to see similar numbers this year.
In Florida, health department numbers show emergency room and urgent care visits for flu-like symptoms have spiked since Jan. 1, surpassing the 2014-2015 peak. That year, fewer than 6 percent of doctor visits were for flu-like symptoms during the disease’s most active period. This year, the percentage is approaching 8 percent. The number of influenza and pneumonia-fueled deaths per week — 310 in the second week of January — was within the normal range. But that rate, too, was climbing.
"It wasn’t terrible during December, and then all of a sudden it takes off," said Dr. Wassam Rahman, the medical director of emergency services at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
The rapid rise was felt across the country. Three weeks ago, the CDC thought cases had peaked during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But they have since climbed, and agency officials said it appeared to be due to "kids returning to school."
Locally, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties were all showing "moderate" flu activity, and all have reported more than five outbreaks of flu this season, among the hardest hit of all counties statewide, according to state data. Bradford County showed elevated activity, though the most vulnerable region within the state continues to be the Panhandle. In all but eight of 67 counties, flu activity is on the rise, straining emergency rooms.
"It’s busy," Rahman said. "They’re coming in surges. Ten an hour. And it’s not just us, it’s every ER in the country right now."
So far, the disease is responsible for the deaths of three children across Florida and 37 nationwide. About half were otherwise healthy kids, according to Rahman, who are usually better equipped to fight off the disease.
It’s too early to estimate how many children will die this season, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the CDC’s influenza division, during a telephone news conference Friday, because it still has weeks to run, and because the agency often doesn’t learn of deaths — especially of children who die at home — until weeks after they take place. In 2014-2015, there were 148 pediatric deaths.
Twelve-year-old Dylan Winnik, a seventh-grader at Okeeheelee Middle School in West Palm Beach, was battling what his family thought was a cold last week, but was likely the flu, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. His condition deteriorate rapidly over a 48-hour period before he died Tuesday. The official cause of death has yet to be reported.
That can be one of the flu’s most deadly characteristics; people often assume it’s just a cold.
The disease forced the closure of Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater on Friday after almost 100 students and five teachers called in sick with flu-like symptoms. And pneumonia put a Pensacola teen on a respirator fighting to survive.
"The flu kills people every year," Hall said. "It’s a serious disease."
The dominant strain this year, H3N2, has been circulating for 50 years. It emerged as the "Hong Kong flu" in 1968, but it’s usually the most lethal of the seasonal strains. H3N2 also was responsible for bad seasonal flu years in 1997-1998 and 2003-2004, Jernigan said.
Even if this season ends up being much worse than the 2014-2015 season, it would have a hard time rivaling 2009, the year of the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic. The CDC estimated between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide died from swine flu.
Florida’s flu season tends to peak in February or March before the disease mostly subsides for the summer. Flu shots are still effective even though the season is already in full swing
"Any sort of protection we see from the flu vaccine is better than no protection at all," Pinellas County’s Hall said.
Beyond the vaccine, Hall said regular hygienic practices are still the best way to prevent contracting and transmitting the virus: wash hands frequently, direct sneezes into the elbows rather than hands and sanitize surfaces frequently.