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State Pushes Flu Shots in Effort to Tamp Down Danger in Severe Flu Season

Four-year-old girl has died and almost 5,000 residents have been diagnosed

jackie cornell
DOH deputy commissioner Jackie Cornell gets a flu shot at the Eric Chandler Health Center in New Brunswick.

New Jersey officials have ramped up their campaign to help protect the public against this season’s deadly influenza outbreak, a strain that has infected thousands of residents in recent weeks and led to the death of a 4-year-old girl in December.

While flu is not uncommon at this time of year, experts said this season has been extreme in several ways. The impact was unusually delayed, with cases spiking only recently, and the outbreak has been more severe, driving higher numbers of people into the emergency room, or local clinics, than in the past.

“In the last couple weeks, we’ve seen not only an increased frequency, but also a much greater intensity,” said Dr. Marc Milano, chairman of the emergency department at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset. “The volume is not dramatically higher, but the severity is definitely higher.”

Reduce the risk

Officials at the state Department of Health have launched an education effort to help combat the increase and tamp down the potent danger.

On Wednesday, a top deputy commissioner, Jackie Cornell, joined providers at the Eric Chandler Health Center, a federally funded community clinic in New Brunswick, to highlight that it is still not too late to get a flu shot. The simple preventive measure is often available for free at doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

“This is the most important step in protecting against flu, since it can reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious health complications,” explained state epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan, who urged everyone older than six months to get a shot. Other preventive measures include getting plenty of rest and proper nutrition, regular hand-washing, and avoiding those who are sick, experts said.

More effective than originally thought

Vaccinations are cultivated each year and the immunization developed for the current season was originally reported to be only 10 percent effective when used in Australia, which experiences the outbreak months before the disease unfolds in the United States, and is used to predict how the infection will impact the American public. But later findings show that, with its more widespread use in the U.S., the vaccine has been more than 30 percent effective here. (Flu vaccines typically range between 20 percent and 60 percent effectiveness.)

Cornell — a busy mom who just joined the administration — was vaccinated for the first time, along with several reporters who covered the New Brunswick event, according to the department. On Thursday, DOH chief of staff Andrea Martinez-Mejia is up to bat, scheduled to get her shot at a Hudson County clinic that has administered nearly 17,000 vaccinations this season.

High flu activity

Since September, some 4,880 state residents have tested positive for flu, according to the latest DOH report, compared with 3,664 by this time in 2017. Nearly one-third of this season’s cases were diagnosed in the most recent week reported, between January 21 and January 27, and more than two-thirds came in January alone. Flu activity is now considered “high” in all 21 counties.

The outbreak of this season’s H3N2 virus — which has made national news and stressed healthcare resources across the country — also took the life of a 4-year-old girl from Central New Jersey, in December; she had not been vaccinated. No additional information was available. The last flu season did not result in any pediatric deaths, but previous outbreaks resulted in one or more fatalities, and the 2012-2013 season left seven children dead. The state does not track adult deaths from influenza.

New Jersey is not alone. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity is “widespread” in all states, except Hawaii and the District of Columbia; both of those locations report “local activity.” Even Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been impacted by the virus. Nationwide, nearly 83,500 people have tested positive for the flu this season and a total of 37 children have died of the disease.

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State health department data also underscores the severity of this season’s outbreak. The latest weekly report shows that while an average of 6.5 percent of emergency room patients were diagnosed with the disease at this time during the three most severe seasons, influenza-related visits to the ER shot up to 8.75 percent this year. Less than 4 percent of admissions are typically due to flu, but at least 5 percent of those checked into hospitals last week tested positive for influenza.

Stay home

Typically, flu results in cough, congestion, and severe fatigue; headache and fever are also common, experts said. They said those who are infected should stay home from work, school, and other activities; cover coughs and sneezes; wash their hands frequently; and try over-the-counter remedies to address these symptoms. If the conditions continue for more than a few days — or are accompanied at any point by chest pain, shortness of breath, or vomiting — patients should consult their doctor immediately.

Garden State hospitals have tried to get ahead of the outbreak and some have been planning for months. Virtua, a healthcare system in South Jersey, held a public education event in November to help families with newborns — among the most vulnerable to the disease — avoid infection.

Milano, whose hospital is part of the RWJBarnabas network with 11 acute-care facilities, said a regular committee of physicians, hospital administrators and other staff from throughout the system has focused its attention on the flu recently. The group uses its weekly meetings to review policies to address a potential surge in admissions; ensure all hospitals have enough saline bags, masks and other equipment; and provide training in how to keep patients — and providers — safe during the infection.

Patients flooding into clinics

Patients are also flooding into community health clinics, like the Chandler Health Center and the North Hudson Community Action Corporation Health Center, in North Bergen, which Martinez-Mejia will visit Thursday. “The number of cases are higher than in the past,” said Dr. Carmen Mallamaci, the chief medical officer of the North Bergen clinic. “Parents are bringing their children in in higher numbers than in past years.”

The Osborn Family Health Center, in Camden, has also been busy, according to medical director Dr. Emmanuel F. Ashong, who believes part of the high volume was triggered by media accounts of the flu. Others are coming to the Camden facility after getting initial treatment elsewhere, he said. “We are seeing a large number of patients coming in for follow-up care having been treated in local emergency departments,” Ashong noted.

In addition to public outreach through events and social media, the DOH educational materials in several languages on its website that address prevention — including in college settings — and advise people on how to care for those who are sick. The department also provides targeted guidance to physicians and public health officials, hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and school systems on how to address the outbreak.

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