By Tim Darragh, Of The Morning Call
8:59 p.m. EST, January 15, 2013
Laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza increased by more than 5,000 in Pennsylvania and an additional 18 people died of flu-related complications in the past week, the state Department of Health reported Tuesday.
The updated reports, for the week that ended Saturday, bring the totals to 40 deaths and 16,511 confirmed flu cases for the season.
The Pennsylvania numbers add to an influenza outbreak that reached epidemic levels nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. According to the CDC, 7.3 percent of all deaths nationally last week were flu-related, just above the level needed to declare it an epidemic.
The state health data reflect only cases in which a sick person had tests taken and a laboratory confirmed the presence of the influenza virus. Those cases represent a fraction of the total burden of the disease in the state.
The death report is not complete, either. For example, Lehigh Valley Health Network last week reported that an infant had died of likely flu complications during the most recent reporting period. But the state data do not show any flu deaths in the Lehigh Valley through Saturday. An LVH spokesman said the hospital is still awaiting confirmation that the death was flu-related.
According to the state, Lehigh County recorded 826 flu cases since the beginning of the season on Oct. 2. Northampton County had 877 reported cases. About 500 of the cases in the two counties occurred in the week ending Saturday.
The majority of the cases are the influenza A H3N2 strain, which this year's flu vaccine covers.
Flu cases have become so common that two organizations representing the state's doctors are advising some patients to consider tending to their symptoms at home, and not visiting the local hospital emergency department.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society and the state chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians said in a statement that flu patients may not need to go to the emergency room for care.
"For many flu victims, staying at home, drinking fluids and taking acetaminophen is all that they need," said Ralph J. Riviello, president of the emergency physicians group. "But there will be exceptions, and those people should seek immediate assistance."
Those exceptions include people who experience signs of pneumonia, low oxygen levels or severe dehydration.
"An adult with difficulty breathing, chest or abdomen pain, dizziness, confusion or severe vomiting needs to head to the emergency room," Riviello said in the statement.
In addition, children should be taken to a doctor if they have those symptoms, or develop bluish skin, a rash with a fever or if they are not waking up or interacting, the groups said. Also, if flu symptoms appear to be improving, but then return with a fever and a cough worse than before, a person should seek treatment at an emergency department, they said.
According to medical society President C. Richard Schott, many people without severe symptoms can save themselves a trip to the hospital and also save money by treating themselves at home with rest, liquids and over-the-counter painkillers.
"Patients may feel badly for up to a week, but will get better at home," he said.
In another flu-related development Tuesday, Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan health advocacy organization, reported that Pennsylvania in the 2011-12 season ranked 27th among the states for flu vaccinations among eligible children and adults. It said 43.5 percent of eligible people in Pennsylvania got flu shots last year.
According to Trust for America's Health, around 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. Between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans die from flu-related illnesses and an average of 226,000 are hospitalized, it said.
Officials say that since the flu season is still going strong, it's not too late to get a flu shot, even though it takes 10 days to two weeks for the vaccine to reach its full firstname.lastname@example.org
•The Allentown Health Bureau will have free flu vaccines available for the public from 9-11 a.m. and 2-5 p.m. Thursday and 2-4 p.m. Friday at Alliance Hall, 245 N. Sixth St. No appointment is necessary. The vaccine is available to all regardless of residency.
•The Bethlehem Health Bureau will have free flu vaccines for residents of the Bethlehem Area School District from 1-3 p.m. Friday at the health bureau, 10 E. Church St. Call 610-865-7087 to schedule an appointment.
2012-2013 season to date: 40
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Healthhttp://www.mcall.com/health/mc-pennsylv ... 4853.story