North Carolina has set a modern-day state record for flu-related deaths at 253 even as influenza activity continued to lessen last week.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that 18 individuals died in the week that ended Feb. 24. The flu season typically ends March 31, but has been known to linger several weeks into April.
The total includes another 33 people who died in previous weeks and were later determined to have had the flu.
By comparison, both the 2016-17 and 2014-15 seasons had 218 confirmed flu-related deaths.
DHHS began public reporting of weekly flu data for the 2001-02 season, with victim totals being disclosed in the 2008-09 season.
“Cone Health cares for patients in several counties and we are seeing decreasing levels of flu for the second week in a row in all of them,” said Dr. Cynthia Snider, Cone’s infectious disease specialist. “However, I expect the death toll to rise. This has been a brutal flu season and while it has likely peaked, it isn’t over.”
No flu-related deaths have been reported publicly in the Triad and Northwest N.C. Some county health directors have declined to disclose flu-related deaths, citing DHHS privacy policies.
In the latest victim total, there were 41 ages 65 and older, seven in the 50-64 age category and four in the 25 to 49 age group and one in the 5 to 17 age group.
DHHS revised previously reported death totals to 44 (up 17) for the week that ended Feb. 17; 26 (up five) for the week that ended Feb. 10; 44 (up two) for the week that ended Feb. 3, 34 (up three) for the week that ended Jan. 27; and 33 (up five) for the week that ended Jan. 20.
For this flu season, there have been 185 deaths of people 65 or older, 49 for ages 50 to 64, 12 for ages 25 to 49, three for ages 5 to 17 and ages 18 to 24, and one from birth to age 4.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, told legislators Wednesday that March is likely to have some weeks of continued high activity.
Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious-diseases expert with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said last week that “deaths due to influenza are often not due to the virus itself but due to secondary bacterial infections, particularly of the lung.
“Thus, deaths due to influenza may peak after the peak of person-to-person transmission in a community.”
Influenza data gathered by DHHS indicated there was another decline last week in hospital emergency department and provider office visits related to the flu.
There were 737 confirmed flu cases last week among the state’s seven largest hospital networks, representing 7.2 percent of the 10,269 confirmed flu cases those hospitals have experienced for the season.
By comparison, for the week that ended Feb. 3, there were 1,543 confirmed flu cases.
DHHS continues to encourage individuals to get a flu shot even at this late date in the season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the vaccine is 36 percent effective this season and 59 percent effective for children 6 months to 8 years old.
Triad hospitals enacted visitor restrictions for children ages 12 and younger. Children affected by the restrictions will be allowed to enter the hospitals to receive treatment.
They will not be allowed to visit patients “except for extenuating family circumstances.” In those cases, parents or guardians are asked to get permission from the patient’s nurse to allow children to visit.
The latest weekly Walgreens flu index has North Carolina ranked seventh in the country for flu activity.
Besides the elderly, other vulnerable population groups are children younger than 5, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
The predominant strain picked up in lab tests so far is a strain of influenza A known as H3N2.
Ohl said recent statewide data show that the number of cases of illnesses similar to influenza is considerably higher this season than in the past and that the peak-transmission period is longer.
“We’re starting to see a shift away from H3N2 towards influenza B, which typically happens toward the latter half of the season,” Ohl said.