Flu sufferers fill Whidbey Island waiting rooms

Flu is taking its toll on Island County with feverish people packing clinic waiting rooms, health care workers calling in sick and some school nurses reporting a stream of coughing congested kids.

More patients with flulike symptoms sought help at WhidbeyHealth Medical Center during December than all of last flu season, said emergency services director Jeanne Sandahl.

“We are still seeing it, people of all ages coming in,” she said. “And we’ve definitely had the staff affected. The week before and after Christmas, it seemed to peak. And I don’t think they were just trying to get extra time off for the holidays. People were truly feeling puny during that time.”

Many of the employees and patients stricken with the flu had received flu shots, Sandahl said. Every year, scientists must concoct a vaccine in advance of the flu season projecting which influenza strains will dominate.

“That’s the sad part,” she said. “The overwhelming amount of folks we’ve seen have been vaccinated.”

Vaccines are still widely available at WhidbeyHealth clinics, she said. Most local pharmacies also have flu shots.

No influenza-related deaths have been reported in Island County, said Dr. J. Brad Thomas, county health officer.

Statewide, 24 laboratory-confirmed influenza deaths have been reported, state health officials said Friday.

Most of the deaths occurred in people over the age of 65, and many suffered underlying health conditions which weakens the immune system and often leads to pneumonia.

Some hospitals around the state have run out of beds to treat those most stricken. WhidbeyHealth Medical Center says it’s barely been able to keep up.

“We’ve definitely been juggling but we’ve been able to find places for most people,” Sandahl said.

The Washington State Health Department says the epidemic hasn’t yet peaked. It also urges only the sickest or most at-risk flu patients to seek help at emergency rooms, in part to keep the virus out of health care settings and also because there’s no magic cure available.

“Flu’s cure is time,” Sandahl said. “Time, rest and fluids. There’s really nothing we can do for you. We know it’s horribly frustrating for folks who just want a pill to feel better. “

The Oak Harbor School District website urges parents to keep children home who have flu symptoms. Fever, headache, dry cough, congestion, body aches and extreme fatigue are the most common symptoms of the contagious respiratory disease, which can range from mild to severe.

“Our nurses report a steady stream of students visiting school health rooms in recent weeks. Please, keep your child home from school at least 24 hours after their fever and/or vomiting is gone,” the district website suggests.

Oak Harbor Schools spokesperson Conor Laffey said some schools have significant numbers of students out sick while others report little flu activity. “It seems to be happening earlier than last flu season,” he said.

On average, the flu lasts a week to 10 days.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the flu shot for the 2016-17 season is a good match for the predominant circulating H1N1, H3N2 and A and B strains, Sandahl and others at Whidbey Medical Center say otherwise.

“I had a shot and I was sick through the entire holiday season,” Sandahl said. “For three days, even my hair follicles hurt. It was awful.”

It’s tough to dodge the ubiquitous virus, doctors admit, but precaution is the best prescription.

“Wash your hands with soap and water. Cover your cough and don’t share cups and drinking glasses,” advises Thomas.

“But, as anyone with kids or multiple folks in the house knows, it is tough to keep it from spreading among the clan once it’s breached the walls because the virus is on the walls, doorknobs, and TV remote.”