- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2013

The days are still warm, the school year has just begun, and even Congress has yet to return. But hospitals and clinics are gearing up for the flu after epidemic levels and a shortage of vaccines early last season.

Health officials said they have heightened awareness of the coming flu season and are stressing early action to avoid long lines and short supplies.

“Last year you couldn’t find anything,” said Tony Raker, spokesman for the Inova Health System. “One of the messages that’s ingrained in people’s minds is that it’s too early. It’s not too early. If you don’t want to run out, now is the time to get your shot.”

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has begun shipping this season’s vaccines, officials would not offer a guess on the severity of this season because “flu seasons are highly unpredictable,” spokesman Jason McDonald said.

“We never try to make predictions of what we may see during any flu season,” he added.

This year’s vaccine cocktail includes an H1N1-like virus and an H3N2-like virus — the former is associated with swine flu, while the latter is a common strain but also the kind that wreaked havoc last season.

Mr. McDonald explained that vaccines are chosen based on what viruses are most likely to cause illness in the coming season. The CDC website said the organization looks at “which influenza virus strains are circulating, how they are spreading, and how well current vaccine strains protect against newly identified strains.”

While spikes are normally spotted in December or January, flu numbers began to rise around Thanksgiving, the earliest start date for a flu season in 10 years.

Numbers from the CDC show that 12,337 people were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms from October to the end of April. Half of them were older than 65. The CDC also confirmed 149 pediatric deaths.

At one point, 47 states, including Alaska, were reporting widespread flu-like illnesses, and many clinics reported vaccine shortages as people lined up for a shot.

A New York youth sports club discouraged its members from high-fiving, while a hospital in Philadelphia erected a triage tent to handle the extra patients coming in with flu-like symptoms.

Natacha Moorer, a family nurse practitioner and the state practice manager for CVS Minute Clinics in the District, said because of last season “we have found there’s a heightened awareness to get annual flu shots.”

“More people when they hear we have [the vaccine] are saying, ‘OK, I’ll get it now,’” Ms. Moorer said. “It’s important for individuals to get flu vaccines once its available.”

Mr. Raker said the Inova Health System does have vaccines and is already hosting weekly flu clinics at its Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.

“Based on the past year, we have a pretty good idea of how many [vaccines] to anticipate,” Mr. Raker said. “The variable is what we get from the CDC and how it feels the season will go.”

Laurie Folano, the deputy state epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health, said at this point she has “no reason to think” this coming season will be as difficult as the last one, but acknowledged that predictions could change.

“Last year, it was a slightly earlier peak and a quick peak, but I wouldn’t say it was completely abnormal,” she said. “I’d say in general to be prepared for a typical flu season we hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”



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