The beginning of this flu season seemed relatively mild across Massachusetts, but even in December state health officials were concerned about higher case numbers creeping up in Boston.
The Boston Public Health Commission issued a flu advisory on Thursday afternoon not only due to a spike in the number of confirmed influenza cases, but also because this uptick has occurred so late in the season, signaling an unusual pattern and a virus that’s still very much running its course.
From March 30 to April 5, the Boston Public Health Commission reported 116 new cases of the flu, bringing the total number in the city this year to 1,237.
Just a glance at the numbers demonstrates how swiftly the pace of this influenza season is picking up, when it should be winding down.
This year, 27 percent of the Boston flu cases resulted in hospitalizations, and 11 people have died (mostly older adults with previous medical conditions). According to Boston public health officials, this is a typical number of deaths. During last year’s flu season (which was a city-wide public health emergency), Boston flu cases peaked at the beginning of January and largely tapered off by March, reflecting a typical pattern. There were a total of 22 deaths last year, but they had all occurred before this point in the season, according to BPHC.
The first flu-related death in Boston this year occurred on January 10. At that point, city public health officials had confirmed a total of 158 flu cases this season and 47 resulting hospitalizations.
Boston is standing out in comparison with the rest of the state’s flu activity. The latest Massachusetts flu report on April 2 from the Department of Public Health shows that state flu activity is at a minimal level, having spiked in January and February.
Earlier this flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu was hitting a younger population (ages 18 to 64) particularly hard this season. This group contained the majority of flu-related hospitalizations, but was also the least likely to be vaccinated. Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission, said in an interview at the time that the national trends reflected what she was seeing in the city.
The elderly, sick, and very young are the most susceptible the severe complications from the flu that could land them in the hospital. Health experts say that getting a flu shot is the best defense against the flu and protects the more susceptible members of the population. The vaccine takes 10 to 14 days to be fully effective, so people should be aware that they’re still susceptible to contracting the illness if exposed after a vaccine.
“We realize that it’s late in the season, but the flu is unpredictable and people should take the appropriate precautions to stay healthy,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of BPHC, said in a statement. “Although the weather is getting warm, we’re seeing a second wave of influenza activity in Boston.”
Boston public health officials recommend residents take the following steps (in addition to getting a flu vaccine) to protect themselves and their loved ones against the flu:
- Avoid contact with people who have the flu
- Touching your eyes, nose, or mouth can help germs to spread easily. Avoid touching these areas.
- Stay home if you’re sick.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water often, or use hand sanitizer, especially after coughing or sneezing.
- Consult your primary care provider, or even visit a local pharmacy to get your flu shot. You can also find out about flu shot locations by calling the Mayor’s Health Line at 617-534-5050.
Chelsea Rice is a health producer for Boston.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaRice.