WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. – It’s not an epidemic.
Not yet, that is.
On Saturday, New York State declared a state of emergency: “We are experiencing the worst flu season since at least 2009, and influenza activity in New York State is widespread, with cases reported in all 57 counties and all five boroughs of New York City,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a statement.
Cuomo issued an executive order extending pharmacists' permission to give flu vaccines to those between 6 months and 18 years of age, in addition to those who are older.
“Like the rest of the state and the country, Westchester is seeing increased confirmed reports of the flu,” said county public health information and communication director Caren Halbfinger. “So far this year, we have 734 cases, a little more than twice as many (325) as we had at this time during the 2010-2011 season."
That season, she said, was an average year. “Last year we had almost no flu cases at this point in the year (seven reports),” she said.
In neighboring Fairfield County, Conn., “Flu cases have skyrocketed,” said Dr. Michael Parry, chairman of the infectious diseases department at Stamford Hospital, where staff are following safety protocols, he said.
At Northern Westchester Hospital, staff are isolating into separate rooms patients who present with influenza-like symptoms in order to prevent its spread, according to Kristen Lawton, the hospital’s director of emergency services.
“Staff take appropriate precautions by wearing masks and proper attire before entering these rooms,” she said.
County Executive Robert Astorino and Health Commissioner Sherlita Amler, MD, are advising residents who have not already done so to get their flu shot.
Each year in the United States, hundreds of thousands of cases of the flu are reported and several thousands of people die from its complications. The flu generally manifests with fever, chills, sore throat, cough and body aches, among other symptoms. However unpleasant its two-week grip can be, it generally is not life-threatening to healthy people.
Complications, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, can be deadly for some people, including those with pre-existing conditions, as well as pregnant women, children and the elderly.
This year’s flu shots and nasal mists contain vaccines against three strains: H3N2 (seasonal A strain), H1N1 and a B strain. Parry said the seasonal influenza A is prevalent now.
Parry said you are less likely to contract the flu if you have had the vaccine, particularly in seasons like the current one, when the circulating strains of flu closely are related to the immunization.
For those already vaccinated, returning for another dose of the vaccine this season will not further protect you against this winter’s viruses, he said, although he does recommend people get re-immunized every year, which “builds your body’s memory bank for future flu strains.”
In the meantime, Parry, like all health professionals, suggests taking basic steps – in addition to washing your hands frequently – to protect yourself from the flu. Judging by the swiftness with which the flu is now spreading, some additional precautions, he said, are warranted.
“Stay away from coughing, sneezing people, and defer from shaking hands with someone if you can’t wash or use antibacterial product soon after.”
And if you do get the flu? “Stay home,” Parry said.
For more information about the flu, contact the Westchester County Department of Health at (914) 813-5000, or click here www.westchestergov.com/health.