Nurses at Southeastern Health Center in Savage have administered more than 4,000 shots of the flu vaccine to patients hoping to escape the annual rampage of chills, aches and runny noses. Still, the emergency room at Howard County General was so crowded with fevered patients last week that the hospital was put on "red alert," a sure sign that flu season had finally arrived.
"It seems to be peaking right now," said Barbara O'Connor, the hospital's infection control manager. "It's really started to settle in within the last week or so."
Health officials said that this year's season for flu and other illnesses has arrived a little late and will probably last through March and possibly into April. Some had worried that restrictions earlier this winter on who could receive the flu vaccine would result in mass infections. But so far, health officials report the number of cases is similar to last year's.
Howard County General has treated 113 patients with the flu, O'Connor said. Only 18 of those were adults. The rest were mostly children ages 7 to 12, who are more susceptible to the virus. Last year, the hospital treated 10 adults and 100 children.
West Friendship Elementary School Principal Corita Oduyoye said that nine of her students have been diagnosed with the flu this year. But some days, the number of children absent due to a grab bag of ailments, from upset stomach to fevers, can be as high as 15.
Deborah Jagoda, principal of St. John's Lane Elementary School, said that several students have been sent home sick but that the numbers are similar to those in years past.
"Definitely, some kids have had the flu," she said. "But it has not been to the point where we're seeing empty classrooms."
O'Connor said that flu symptoms normally begin to appear in adults between one and four days after contracting the virus and can last for several weeks. In children, however, symptoms may not appear for up to 10 days. And while adults generally are not infectious until their symptoms begin, children can pass the virus along as soon as they catch it.
Jagoda said that she reminded parents in a recent school newsletter that it is important to keep their children home if they are sick. She also emphasized hand washing and recommended supplying children with tissues for their runny noses when they are in class.
But the best way to prevent getting the flu is to be vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Restrictions on the vaccine have been lifted, and shots are still available for $10 through the county by making an appointment at the Southeastern Health Center, said Lorraine Quarrick, a registered nurse and flu clinic coordinator.
The vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in, but a delayed start to the season means that there is still plenty of time to ward off the disease.
"As long as we're seeing the flu, it's not too late to get a flu shot," O'Connor said.