Flu outbreak hospitalizes 5,267 New Yorkers; officials still urge vaccinations

A nurse  at the Primary Care Clinic at NYC Health and Hospitals/Bellevue Hospital  administers a flu shot  to patient Maria Fernandez on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.
A nurse at the Primary Care Clinic at NYC Health and Hospitals/Bellevue Hospital administers a flu shot to patient Maria Fernandez on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

New Yorkers are flooding into emergency rooms and urgent care centers with fever, cough and other flu-like symptoms.

The state Health Department has tracked almost 6,000 lab-confirmed cases of the flu across the five boroughs and doctors are encouraging people to get flu shots.

Even the MTA is using its message boards to remind New Yorkers to sneeze into their sleeves if they don’t have a tissue handy.

For the week ending Jan. 13, 1,606 people were hospitalized with confirmed flu cases across the state — a large jump over the same time period last year when the number was 863.

So far in this season overall, 5,267 people have been hospitalized in New York state with confirmed flu, compared with 3,533 for the 2016-17 season. Statistics show 17,362 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza were reported.

Those numbers dwarf the 2015-2016 year when just 307 people had been hospitalized with confirmed flu by Jan. 9.

“The most alarming statistic is that every year thousands of people die after getting the flu,” said Dr. Neil Vora, epidemiologist with the city Health Department. “More than 100 children died in the U.S. last year during flu season. It’s a common illness that can spread quickly from person to person.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 30 flu-related deaths among children nationwide so far for the 2017-18 flu season.

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the chorus of people urging all New Yorkers over the age of six months old to get a flu shot, noting a sharp increase in cases in recent weeks.

It’s not too late to get vaccinated. People can get the shots at their doctor’s offices, local pharmacies and clinics.

Dr. Sean Studer, deputy chief medical officer for the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, which also operates clinics across the five boroughs, said there is currently no vaccine shortage.

“There are some concerns about it not being as effective but we should be able to treat people with flu medications,” he said. “It’s still wise to get a vaccine.”

Studer also urged people with milder symptoms to go to outpatient clinics and only those with the most severe symptoms to go to a hospital.

Officials said several emergency departments of HHC hospitals are seeing slightly more patients then they did this time last year. Patients with suspected or confirmed flu are being separated from the rest of the population to keep it from spreading.

The CDC describes the flu as a “contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes lungs.”

The flu can be especially dangerous for people over the age of 65, pregnant women, young children and anyone with asthma, diabetes and some other chronic medical conditions.

While the different strains of flu vary year to year, researchers are looking at the flu’s impact at other places around the globe.

“The best window into what is likely to be coming here is what is happening in the southern hemisphere,” said Dr. Stephen Morse, a flu expert and epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School for Public Health. “[Australia] had a really heavy flu season.”

Morse said the H3N2 subtype of influenza, which he termed a “nastier form,” could be contributing to an uptick in cases but they won’t know for sure until the season ends.

And that could be as late as May, according to Vora.

He said some of the most effective ways to battle the flu are simple.

“Get the vaccination, wash your hands with soap and water,” Vora said. “If someone is sick with fever and a cough, stay home from work or school and don’t get other people sick.”

If someone does get the flu, a doctor can treat them with antiviral medications.

“The sooner someone gets treated, the more effective it is,” he said.