Many of the people walking into Indiana County doctors’ offices and health clinics this holiday season share something in common: They all have a cough, fever and body aches.
In many cases, the cause is the same: influenza.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, flu season appears to be in full swing, with health officials reporting outbreaks in at least half the regions of the state.
There were nearly 1,200 confirmed cases of influenza in Pennsylvania between Sept. 29 and Dec. 21, and the hardest-hit areas are in western Pennsylvania.
“We’re seeing an increase” in the number of confirmed flu cases locally, said David McDevitt, infection control coordinator at Indiana Regional Medical Center.
According to the state health department, there were 28 confirmed flu cases in Indiana County as of Dec. 21. But McDevitt said this morning IRMC has reported 54 confirmed flu cases in the county in December, up from two confirmed cases each in October and November.
“It’s definitely picked up,” McDevitt said, adding that until mid-December the number of confirmed influenza cases in Indiana County had been increasing by a couple each day. “We really noticed an uptick the week before Christmas” when the number starting growing by four, five or six a day, he said.
Dr. Amy Mullen, with Indiana Pediatric Associates, said her office experienced a “pretty sudden spike last week” in the number of sick kids with sore throats, headaches, coughs and fevers in the 103-to-105-degree range.
“It’s an exposure issue,” Mullen said of the flu, adding that kids spend a lot of time in close contact with many other children at school and have plenty of opportunities to pick up the virus that causes flu symptoms — and then to bring the virus home with them to parents and siblings.
It’s possible the number of children sick with the flu will grow even more when kids return to school later this week from their Christmas vacations.
Dawn Landis, nurse manager at IRMC’s two Urgicare centers in Indiana and Blairsville, also saw evidence of the flu’s spread. Between Dec. 16 and 22, the Indiana Urgicare received 268 total patients. The following week Indiana Urgicare treated 290 total patients even though the center was closed Christmas Day.
According to the state department of health, three counties — Allegheny, Blair and Butler — lead the state in the number of confirmed flu cases as of Dec. 21. Each of those three counties had more than 70 confirmed cases.
In comparison to Indiana County’s 28 confirmed cases, Armstrong County had four; Jefferson County had five; Cambria County had 34; Westmoreland County had 50; and Clearfield County had 15.
The department of health said it is important to note that the numbers of flu cases it reports reflect only the cases confirmed through positive laboratory tests and are only a fraction of the actual number of people sickened by the flu in the commonwealth at any given time. That is because most people with the flu (even those who seek medical treatment) are diagnosed presumptively and do not have lab tests performed to determine the cause of illness, and some people do not go to a doctor when they are ill.
The state department of health estimates 5 to 20 percent of Pennsylvanians (600,000 to 1.2 million people) get the flu each year and 200 to 2,000 die from complications of influenza.