Tonawanda News

January 11, 2013

Flu outbreak hits region early this season

By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — You’d be hard-pressed to find at least one friend, relative or co-worker who hasn’t come down with the flu in recent weeks. 

And while the health departments of Erie and Niagara counties will not have accurate statistics on the extent of the outbreak until later this year, reports gathered from various hospitals each day show there has been a surge in the number of influenza cases that have jammed up emergency rooms in hospitals across the region.  

Gale Burstein, commissioner of the Erie County health department, said it’s difficult to enumerate precise figures on those who have the virus because most who contract it do not tend to visit their medical providers. However, this winter’s rise may be attributable to two new flu strains as well as the early onset of the flu season that may be tied to last year’s exceedingly warm temperatures. 

“We are seeing much more flu this year compared to last,” Burstein said. “This is just looking at trends.” 

Dan Stapleton, director of the Niagara County Health Department, said the best way to fend off the virus is by getting a vaccination, which is about 60 percent effective, though it’s the simple things that can help keep you healthy like regularly washing your hands, staying home from work when symptoms arise and keeping your children home from school when they feel sick.  

“We’re telling people the same thing over and over,” he said. “Last year was a slow year in terms of flu cases. This season is proving to be a lot more expansive. About a months ago we had scattered cases of the flu in New York state. Now every county has multiple cases.”

The flu doesn’t usually hit its peak in the region until February according to Mary Walwander, an Erie County epidemiologist, though based on limited data this year is different, with more than 200 instances of the flu recorded recently.

“It’s peaking about three weeks earlier,” she said. “But most people don’t go to the doctor when the have the flu. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.” 

The two new strains are included in updated flu vaccines. The presence of whooping cough, which generally afflicts children and results in heavy hacking among other symptoms has also recently increased statewide and nationally, and can sometimes lead to fatalities, though several medical professionals interviewed said there is also an effective two-part vaccine that can be taken by both children and adults.

Acccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there has been an increase in influenza activity in the country, while numbers in hospital emergency room have spiked as well.

“On average we’re seeing 80 patients a day and for several days now we’re up to 100,” said Dawn Cwierley, a spokeswoman for Kenmore Mercy Hospital. “There’s definitely an increase.”

Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.