This year, flu season has severely impacted some parts of the country. Hospital emergency rooms and doctors’ offices are filled with patients experiencing flu-like symptoms. The vaccines and medicines needed for treatment have sometimes appear to be in short supply. NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider spoke with Mary O’Dowd, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, to get an update on how the flu is affecting the state’s residents and health providers.
Although this year’s flu season has been more challenging than usual, O’Dowd says the good news is that the flu vaccine is a good match for the strains of flu that are circulating right now. “So the flu shot can be a very effective tool for people to avoid getting sick and, if they do get sick, having a much less severe form of the illness,” said O’Dowd.
The flu is blamed for three reported pediatric deaths in New Jersey. Approximately, 30 pediatric deaths have been reported nationwide so far this season. “Every time a child dies regardless of the disease it’s heartbreaking and really my heart goes out to those families who are mourning the loss of their children right now,” O’Dowd said.
Flu season lasts until April 1 of every year but this year saw higher levels of activity, earlier than the usual time frame of January/February. This year, it began as early as mid-December.
“New Jersey’s activity continues to increase, we’re seeing twice the amount of emergency visits due to flu-like illness right now than we did at the same time last year, and we’re also seeing increases in outbreaks in nursing homes and other long terms facilities,” explained O’Dowd.
O’Dowd urges all eligible individuals 6 months and older to get a flu shot. “The flu shot is the most effective way to protect yourself, your children and your family from getting sick. The flu shot is tested year after year. It is a safe and effective tool to prevent this very serious illness.”
If you do get sick, O’Dowd advises washing your hands regularly and covering your cough to prevent the spread of germs. Also, call your doctor for an evaluation and, if appropriate, antiviral medication.
“What studies have shown is that taking that antiviral medication early on can severely improve the impact of that illness on you and keep you healthier,” said O’Dowd.
Because of the increased demand for the vaccine, some health providers are reporting spot shortages. But O’Dowd thinks the state has adequate supplies of the vaccine and other supplies to treat the flu, saying, “providers can still order additional flu vaccine if they have run out of their own supply.” She also adds that the department has set up a flu shot locator on its website. “You can push a button and insert your zip code, find area providers that still have vaccine available. It’s a smart idea to call ahead and see if you can either schedule an appointment or make sure that they still have a supply available. But there still is a significant amount of vaccines available to the public.”
In some cases, hospitals have had to treat flu patients in tents set up outside. According to O’Dowd, many of New Jersey’s hospitals have been stressed with the increase in individuals coming to their emergency department or being admitted for treatment of flu-like illness. “Many hospitals have opened additional wings or called in more staff to support the need of their community. What we know is that while our health care system is stressed they are prepared and working hard to respond to the needs of their community.”
Related information: Flu Vaccine Finder