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'A little concerning': Flu season begins early, with widespread impacts in Tennessee

Jonathan Roberts • Dec 4, 2019 at 7:17 PM

Tennessee might be headed for an “unpredictable” and “challenging” flu season.

“The CDC is reporting that we have high levels of flu, pretty much across Tennessee at this point,” said Dr. Michelle Fiscus, director of the Tennessee Department of Health’s immunization program. “It’s a little bit concerning that this season started a little earlier than predicted, and the numbers seem to be on a trajectory that’s a little more steep than what we see, typically, this time of year.

“It’s a little concerning as a predictor for what might be a challenging flu season for us,” Fiscus said.

Also unexpected is the type of flu doctors are seeing.

“This season is starting out a little unusual in that most of what we’re seeing across the country is the B-strain flu, when typically at this time of the year we see A-strain flu,” Fiscus said. “It’s a little unusual to have this much B-flu this time of year.”

While the symptoms of A and B-strains of flu are similar, B-flu is typically in the background, and not as widespread as it is this season. B-flu is only transmittable from person-to-person, unlike A-flu, which can be spread by animals as well. The flu vaccine protects against both strains.

And though it began early, there’s no doubt that flu season is here.

“We’re above the threshold to say flu season has started,” said Dr. David Kirschke, Medical Director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office.

While Kirschke says it’s hard to compare how one part of the state is doing compared to another, data from the Tennessee Department of Health says East Tennessee has 2.8% fewer patients compared to the rest of the state, but that doesn’t mean East Tennesseans shouldn’t take flu season seriously. 

No matter what region you live in, however, both Kirschke and Fiscus say it is imperative for people to get vaccinated now, before it’s too late for it to be effective.

“Unfortunately, by the time we know how severe (flu season) is going to be, it can be too late to get a flu shot because it’s already widely circulating,” Kirschke said. “If people have not gotten the influenza vaccination yet, knowing flu season is starting should hopefully motivate them to get it.”

Fiscus said that people should “really respect the fact that the flu can be deadly,” noting that tens of thousands of people die each year from influenza and complications from the disease. In the 2017-18 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated more than 80,000 people died from influenza, including 180 children.

“The most important thing that any Tennessean can do to protect themselves, their children and the people they love is get vaccinated according to what’s recommended for them,” Fiscus said. “It is the lowest cost and best prevention we have to offer, and I urge everyone to get fully vaccinated.”

While the flu vaccine is considered “incredibly safe” and cannot make you sick, Fiscus said combating misinformation surrounding the flu vaccine is one of the most “frustrating” parts of her job.

“It’s unfortunate that some of the messages that are out there are manipulated in such a way to try and scare people out of vaccinating their children,” Fiscus. “I’m very concerned that it's going to take people dying in Tennessee for people to trust and believe in science again.”

Fiscus said flu vaccines are readily available at most pharmacies, and that they are often provided by local health offices at little or no cost.

Kirschke said the vaccines take time to kick in, so the sooner somebody is vaccinated the better. If you do happen to get sick though, both recommend staying home and contacting your doctor.

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