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Flu declared a national epidemic, but here the worst may be over

A sign waiting areAdvocate Good Samaritan Hospital which has seen patients experiencing flu-like symptoms recently as flu seashit areearlier than

A sign in the waiting area at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital, which has seen patients experiencing flu-like symptoms recently as the flu season hit the area earlier than in typical years. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:51AM

If it seems coughs and sneezes are providing a constant soundtrack to your life these days, that national news reports are starting to look like scenes from the blockbuster movie “Contagion” filmed in Elgin, it’s not just your imagination.

The seasonal flu continues to pick up steam nationwide and on Friday was officially declared an epidemic by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But while the Fox Valley hasn’t been immune to the illness — area hospitals are reporting more and earlier cases — schools and hospitals say those numbers already may be on the decline in Elgin and in Kane County.

“It’s too early to say, but if the trend we saw last week continues, we may have peaked a little earlier than the rest of the country,” said Kathy Aureden, epidemiology coordinator at Sherman Health.

At Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Aureden said, that peak came in the middle of December.

Since then, more than 20 people have been admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms, she said. Usually, one or two people are admitted with those symptoms at this time of year.

Three were admitted to critical care at Sherman.

Sherrie Schmidt, district nurse in nearby Community Unit School District 300, said students calling in absent in the Carpentersville-based school district mimicked that trend.

The week of Dec. 12, 7.2 percent of students were absent from schools across District 300, Schmidt said. The next week, the week between the school shooting and winter break, when the Mayan apocalypse had sent rumors swirling through schools across the area and the country, that number dropped to 5.5 percent.

That number dropped even further this past week to 5.4 percent, she said.

Elgin School District U46 did not respond last week last week to questions about absentee rates from The Courier-News.

Down countywide, too

Kane County Health Department spokesman Tom Schlueter stated Friday that the number of visits to emergency rooms in Kane for influenza-like illness dipped slightly last week, but urged that only people with severe respiratory illness who have trouble breathing need to visit a hospital emergency department.

“In most cases we recommend contacting a health professional before going to the emergency department. The majority of people suffering from the flu simply need to stay home, rest and let the flu run its course,” Schlueter said.

Statewide, nearly 370 people have been admitted to intensive care units with the flu this season in Illinois, and 27 have died, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported Friday.

That’s a big jump from the Dec. 29 totals of almost 150 Illinois residents hospitalized and six deaths. The majority of hospitalizations and deaths are people in their 50s and older, IDPH said.

The IDPH doesn’t keep track of the incidence of influenza, because it is not a reportable disease. However, the agency monitors the data reported by doctors’ offices, emergency departments and nursing homes that report acute illness, as well as schools that report absenteeism rates, to determine prevalence levels. The state has been at the highest level, “widespread,” since Dec. 9.

Last year, when the flu packed a much gentler punch, Illinois didn’t reach the top rung on the flu-prevalence meter until Feb. 19. In 2011, it happened Jan. 23.

“This is much earlier than we usually see this level of activity,” said Mary Anderson, manager of infectious disease control at Edward Hospital in Naperville.

Six more states

The CDC on Friday said flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, and declared the outbreak an epidemic. The only states without widespread flu, it reported, are now California, Mississippi and Hawaii.

The number of hardest-hit states dropped to 24 from 29. Illinois is still classified as one of the hardest hit.

So far, the CDC said, 20 children have died nationwide from the flu. There is no running tally of adult deaths, but the CDC estimates that the flu kills about 24,000 people in an average year.

According to the IDPH, an average of 3,500 Illinois residents die annually as a result of complications from the flu.

“Flu does kill people, depending how bad the strain is,” said Dr. Tom Scaletta, medical director of the emergency department at Edward, citing the 1918-19 flu that killed some 850,000 people in the U.S. “It can take the lives of otherwise healthy people, occasionally.”

This year’s influenza A H3N2 strain is relatively bad.

“H3N2 influenza viruses are typically associated with higher death rates,” the CDC reports on its website.

“As flu activity remains high, the Kane County Health Department is advising that is not too late to get your flu shot,” Schlueter said. “Flu vaccine is available at many pharmacies, grocery stores and health providers. Anyone six months and older should get a flu shot to protect themselves and their family against influenza. A flu shot finder map is available on our website at

“Consult with your physician if symptoms (which can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue) are worsening. Even if you don’t develop symptoms yourself, you can still pass the virus on to others like pregnant women, young children, those with chronic health conditions (like asthma, diabetes, heart disease) and people 65 and older who are especially at risk for complications from the flu,” Schlueter said.

“Once vaccinated, it takes two weeks for antibodies to develop to provide protection. Practice the 3 C’s — clean your hands, cover your cough and contain your germs by staying home when sick.”

Limiting visitors

Effective Friday, McHenry County’s Centegra Health System announced that to keep the virus away, its hospitals in McHenry and Woodstock will allow no visitors under the age of 18, and only limited visitation for “significant others” in obstetrics and pediatrics.

“Those who are feeling sick with a runny nose, sore throat or fever are asked to not visit friends or loved ones in the hospital,” Centegra spokeswoman Kim Kubiak said. “Those with a cold are asked to wear a mask if they are coughing or sneezing; cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze; throw tissues in the trash after they are used; wash their hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing; use soap and water or alcohol based hand cleansers; and avoid touching eyes, noses or mouths as germs spread this way.”

“We know we definitely saw a spike by mid-December,” said Patricia Gomez, administrative director of emergency services at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora. She said the high volume has remained consistent through the month since then.

Delnor Hospital in Geneva is treating significantly more flu cases than usual, too.

“Both our ER and our two express cares have seen a big increase,” said Dr. Mark Daniels, vice president of medical affairs for Delnor. “The month of December at the express cares was the biggest they’ve had in two years.”

In the Fox Valley, most residents see their family doctor when they’re feeling under the weather. Some emergency rooms elsewhere, however, are being inundated with people complaining of flu symptoms. In Chicago, nearly a dozen hospitals were on bypass — a status that temporarily redirects incoming ambulances to other medical centers — for awhile on Monday night, when emergency rooms experienced a flu surge.

Among those admitted for treatment at Delnor, Daniels said, a considerable number of patients are being kept in isolation because of the highly contagious nature of the illness. Particularly prevalent are people admitted for treatment who have other health conditions rendering them especially susceptible to the flu.

“People have respiratory conditions and heart conditions, things like that, and suddenly they’re having trouble breathing,” he said.

Labored breathing

The H3N2 flu takes a form similar to its cousin, the virulent H1N1 strain that triggered a worldwide pandemic in 2009 and 2010 and killed thousands of people. Those who have it have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache and body aches.

“You take your typical cold, and then you add this tremendous aching and a feeling that you really can’t get out of bed,” Scaletta said.

Additional resources are available at

Staff writers Susan Frick Carlman, Emily McFarlan Miller, Dave Gathman and Monifa Thomas contributed to this report.

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