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Hospitalizations explode: Flu season may be worst in years

Hospitals restricting some visitors to help prevent spread.

A local 4-year-old’s death last week was a stark reminder about the dangers of the flu, which has quickly spread in Ohio as children returned to school and adults went back to work following the holiday break.

Ohio had almost 1,750 new confirmed flu-related hospitalizations during the first week of January, bringing the total number of hospitalizations to 3,854 for the entire flu season that started in October.

And last week, two Ohio children — including one from Clayton — died from complications from the flu, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

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Locally, the increased number of flu cases has been so dramatic that health officials are restricting some visitors to area hospitals, and telling parents to keep children away if possible.

This flu season in Ohio and nationally is looking similar to what was seen during the 2014-15 flu season, which at the time was the most severe flu season in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Child had underlying conditions

Jonah Rieben of Clayton, who was being treated for several underlying medical conditions, died just a few hours after the initial onset of flu symptoms at Dayton Childrens Hospital, his parents Richard and Valerie Rieben said.

His older brother, Nikolai, who also has underlying medical conditions, was admitted to Dayton Children’s on Wednesday following the onset of symptoms and is receiving treatment. He was in stable condition late last week.

MORE: Local counties see ‘dramatic rise’ in flu hospitalizations

Richard Rieben said their family, the adoption community and special needs community as well as their church have supported the family and reached out.

“For a while we’ve belonged to unique groups. You know, you belong to the ‘special needs parents’ group. You belong to the ‘big family’ group. The group I didn’t think I was ready to join was the group that has lost a young child,” Richard Rieben said. “So learning to be part of that group is going to be a significant challenge to us and learning to support our children as they go through this process.”

Flu can cause deaths

Flu can be more than a nuisance. It can also be deadly. Seven pediatric flu deaths were recorded in Ohio last year and 101 nationally.

Adult flu-associated deaths are not required to be reported to public health agencies.

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Flu cases are now “widespread” in 46 states including Ohio. The severity and time frame of the season swings every year, though activity typically begins to increase in October and can last as late as May, with cases typically peaking between December and February.

About 80 percent of cases are of the H3N2 strain, the CDC reports, which is a nasty strain that led to high hospitalization rates in the Southern Hemisphere this year.

IV shortage

This year, hospitals are also having to get creative with their treatments because of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, where a primary supplier of IV bags to the United States is located.

Local hospitals like Mercy Health, Miami Valley Hospital and Dayton Children’s Hospital had to find alternative work-arounds to respond to the shortage of fluids used for hydrating and delivering medicine and nutrients.

Patient care, however, has not been impacted because of alternative options like adminstering a drug orally, according to a spokesperson for Mercy Health.

Hospital restrictions

The spread of the flu has prompted adult short-term acute care hospitals in the region to restrict certain visitors — those who are young or anyone sick with the flu — through March of this year. The restrictions include: no visitation by anyone under the age of 14 or who is ill with any symptoms like coughing, fever, chills, headache, vomiting, sore throat and muscle aches or diarrhea.

Health officials urge people to get vaccinated by the end of October to beat the start of flu season, though the vaccine is still available at doctors offices, clinics and retail pharmacies. There is no shortage of the vaccine this year.

MORE: Local counties see ‘dramatic rise’ in flu hospitalizations

“It’s not too late,” said Corey Brand, pharmacist at Clark’s Rx in Huber Heights. Brand said the bulk of patients who come in either have a small co-pay or pay nothing, and seniors with Medicare part B are fully covered.

Flu shots

Getting a flu shot doesn’t mean you won’t get sick. The shot is typically 40 to 60 percent effective, health officials say.

It’s also not known yet how well the flu shot matches the virus that is now circulating, but Dr. Jon Woltmann said it doesn’t appear that this year’s vaccine is as good a match as in past years.

But Woltmann, with Dayton Children’s Hospital infectious disease department, said people should still get the shot because he said it may lessen the symptoms. It takes about two weeks for a flu shot to take full effect.

‘Difficult to predict’

Flu seasons vary in scope and impact.

In 2013-14, Ohio had 3,489 confirmed flu-associated hospitalizations; the next year it had 9,374, nearly three times as many.

Last flu season, there were 8,661 flu-related hospitalizations; this year is pacing to exceed that total.

“Flu is difficult to predict,” said Dr. Clint Koenig, Ohio Department of Health Medical Director. “It’s not possible to say precisely when this flu season will peak or end or how severe it will be. That’s why getting the flu vaccination is the safest and most effective way to prevent the flu for everyone 6 months and older. Flu vaccination also can reduce the severity of illness if you do get sick.”

The CDC recommends that health care providers prescribe one of two antiviral drugs as a second line of defense for patients with confirmed or suspected influenza who are hospitalized, have severe illness, or may be at higher risk for flu complications.

“These antiviral medications can reduce the severity of the flu and prevent serious flu complications,” Koenig said. “They work best when started within two days of getting sick.”

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