In a flu season that has been uncharacteristically mild for Pennsylvania, the southwestern region of the state has seen the fewest cases of the illness.
Residents in this area have become ill at half the rate as those in the northeastern area, which has seen the most influenza cases in the state so far this season.
Two in 100 people in the southwestern region of Pennsylvania have been diagnosed with the flu, compared to four in 100 people in the northeastern area, said Nate Wardle, press secretary for the state’s Department of Health.
Compared to previous years, the state as a whole has been relatively healthy this flu season. In the first week of 2015, there were more than 8,000 confirmed cases of influenza, according to data from the Department of Health. From October 2018 to the end of the first week of 2019, there have been just over 9,000.
Emergency Physician David Abt said this follows the trend he has seen in the emergency room at Canonsburg Hospital. Although Abt has said a handful of patients tested positive for the flu in the last couple of weeks, the hospital saw relatively few cases from late November to December – the time of year when there is usually a spike in the illness.
“I think to some degree there’s an ebb and flow to it,” Abt said when asked to explain this year’s restricted outbreak. “I always like to think that maybe people are getting their flu shots.”
In addition, the few patients Abt has seen with the flu have been less ill than those in years past, exhibiting sore throats and runny noses rather than respiratory complications and dehydration. So far this season, the doctor hasn’t had to admit anyone to the intensive care unit for treatment while they recover from influenza.
Kelly Cole, director of microbiology at the Allegheny Health Network, recounted another bright spot this flu season: a rapid response test that allows hospitals in the AHN to diagnose patients with the flu faster and with more accuracy than ever before.
Previously, physicians like Abt confirmed flu cases by ways of two examinations: a test that spit out results with limited accuracy but did so quickly – allowing patients to leave the emergency room with a diagnosis – and one that confirmed the results of the initial test.
The problem with this system was that when the initial test came back with a false negative, as Abt said it was apt to do in 20 to 50 percent of cases, a patient wouldn’t know they had the flu until the second, more accurate, test diagnosed them. This could take up to a day, as only the central office had the capability to conduct the second test.
“As you can imagine, patients had already gone home and some of them were on medication or chose not to be and they were exposing their family members,” Cole said.
But this flu season, all seven hospitals in the AHN network have the capability to conduct this test. In addition, new research has cut its total run-time down from three hours to only 30 minutes. And Cole said doctors can get back to patients with positive diagnoses in just 10 minutes.
“This is really awesome because it’s important to know ‘are they flu positive, are they flu negative’ while we have them there with us,” said Abt.
As of last week, 414 cases and 18 hospitalizations were reported in Allegheny County. At this point last year, the flu reports were significantly higher with 3,533 cases, 316 hospitalizations and 8 deaths, according to county health statistics. Only person has died from the flu – a woman in her early 90s with underlying medical problems – in Allegheny County.
Despite the season’s slow start, Warble said Pennsylvania may see a spike of flu cases in late January and early February. In other words, if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, now’s the time.