North Carolina is on pace for setting a modern-day state record for flu-related deaths after reaching the 200 threshold in the current season.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that 27 individuals died in the week that ended Feb. 17. The flu season typically ends March 31, but has been known to linger several weeks into April.
The total includes another eight people who died in previous weeks and were later determined to have had the flu.
By comparison, the 2016-17 season had 219 confirmed deaths related to the flu and the 2014-15 season had 218.
DHHS began public reporting of weekly flu data for the 2001-02 season, with victim totals being included in the 2008-09 season.
Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious-diseases expert with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said 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,” Ohl said.
Influenza data gathered by DHHS indicated there was a decline last week in hospital emergency department and provider office visits related to the flu.
There were 1,297 confirmed flu cases last week among the state’s seven largest hospital networks, representing 13.6 percent of the 9,532 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.
“For the first time this influenza season, Novant Health has seen a decline in the number of positive influenza tests in our hospitals and clinics," said Dr. David Priest, lead clinician with the system's infectious disease specialists,.
"However, influenza activity remains wide spread and we expect the influenza season to last several more weeks."
Cone Health said it experienced a decrease in emergency department patients with flu symptoms last week for the first time since Christmas.
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 26 ages 65 and older, five in the 50-64 age category and two each in the 18 to 24 and the 25 to 49 age group. The two in the 18-to-24 age group were the first in that category for the season.
DHHS has revised some previous totals to 21 for the week that ended Feb. 10, 42 for the week that ended Feb. 3 — the deadliest week of the state’s current flu season — 31 occurred in the week that ended Jan. 27, and 28 in the week that ended Jan. 20.
For this flu season, there have been 144 deaths of people 65 or older, 42 from ages 50 to 64, eight from ages 25 to 49, three from ages 5 to 17, two from ages 18 to 24, and one from birth to age 4.
DHHS continues to encourage individuals to get a flu shot even at this late date in the season even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the vaccine is 36 percent effective this season and 59 percent effective for children 6 months to 8 years old.
Triad hospitals have enacted visitor restrictions for children ages 12 and younger.
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. Flu vaccine is protecting about one 1 in 3 people who have received the shot.
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.