By David Cruz
At the West Orange Community House, as in much of New Jersey, the flu season has come on early and come on strong. The pre-schoolers here are both bringing it with them, and taking it home. Part of social worker Mary Lou Bruno’s job is to keep a running count.
“We have 176 children enrolled in our school,” she said. “I would say about a third of our population [has gotten sick] in the past week since we’ve been back from Christmas break. I think yesterday it was 37 to 40 children that did not attend, plus we sent home about five or six. They’re just dropping like flies.”
The Centers for Disease Control says 29 states, including New Jersey, have reported high levels of flu activity. That’s up from 16 states the week before. Officials warn this flu season could be severe, and it’s arrived about five weeks ahead of schedule. At the Community House, school staff preach prevention every chance they get.
“Unfortunately, parents will give the children Tylenol at 8 o’clock in the morning and say, no, the baby’s fine, they’re not sick,” she says. “They come in and start coughing, sneezing, and whatever, all over the place, and they infect the other children, and the teachers are getting sick. I have one teacher whose whole family is down.”
Dr. Lawrence Nastro is Chief of Infectious Diseases at Overlook Medical Center in Summit and a master of all things flu.
“Actually, Influenza was named by the Italians, Influenza di Freddo. Before they knew it was a virus, they thought it was from the cold weather, so they thought influence of the cold,” recounts Nastro, who recommends that everyone should get a flu shot, regardless of age, acknowledging however, that, even a flu shot might not always be enough.“Obviously, everybody’s different and some people’s immune system is more efficient and more effective than others but you can get it, too. In the right circumstance, you’ll be flat on your back for a week.”
The hospital is doing its part by making sure that staff aren’t spreading the flu bug to patients who are already vulnerable, like here at the Neuro Intensive Care Unit, where they’re testing a new hand hygiene system.
“What it is is a radio frequency,” explains Dori Prasek, Manager of Infection Prevention at Overlook Medical Center. “You wear an ID badge and it will tell you, when you’re going into a room, it will pick up your name and it will be looking for you to wash those hands. So it’s giving you a window period within 20 seconds of entering that room, prior to touching that patient, it wants to make sure that you’re washing your hands, whether you’re using the hand gel or soap and water, depending on what room you’re going into.”
The flu should not be taken lightly. Those with weakened immune systems, the elderly and the very young are especially at risk. The CDC reports that 18 children have died from complications of the illness as of the end of last year.
The best thing you can do for a person who has the flu is to not become a person who has the flu, so cover your mouth when you cough, wash your hands, and if you don’t feel well, stay home. Doctor’s orders.
To find a flu vaccine clinic near you, visit the state’s Flu Vaccine Finder.