WASHINGTON- The winter has been mild and so has the flu season.
Maryland health officials said the state has reached the peak of the flu season with about 400 reported cases, a typical number. While there is still about a month to go in the season, officials here believe the state has reached or already passed the worst of it.
But they also warn that winter is not over yet and if the weather gets colder, flu cases could increase.
“One can never tell,” said Dr. Virginia Bailey, health officer for the Cecil County Health Department. “So far we’ve had a mild season. We can’t predict what the next month or so will bring.”
So far, however, there have been no major outbreaks, no significant loss of work or school time and no reported deaths, officials said.
Doctors and health clinics are not required to report cases of influenza to the state, and not all flu-like symptoms are confirmed as influenza, so it is difficult to get an accurate reading on the progress of the disease.
But epidemiologist Melinda Blackburn, who tracks the flu-test results that labs voluntarily send in to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said she has recorded about 400 confirmed influenza cases in Maryland so far this year. She said the season typically lasts through the end of March.
“The CDC thinks nationally we haven’t reached the peak yet, but I think Maryland is at its peak right now,” she said. “We’re still seeing a high percentage of patients with influenza-like illness.”
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said those reported cases are “just the tip of the iceberg” of the actual number of flu cases in the state. There are likely thousands more cases, he said, since most people don’t go to the emergency room or see a doctor when they get the flu.
The flu typically affects 10 to 20 percent of the population. Beilenson said he thinks the season peaked in January.
“We had a big spike up in visits in January and it’s come down significantly since then,” he said. “At least in terms of ER (emergency room) visits. They’ve dropped off dramatically from early to mid-January.”
But Dr. James Bowes, the health officer in Frederick County, said he thinks the mild weather may have just delayed the peak.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the peak, I think we will if the Western snow comes here,” he said. “If we get any heavy snow or wet weather, which we’re praying for because of the farmers, then I’d expect we’d get some more flu.”
At Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick, infection control nurse- practitioner Judith Sturgis said the flu epidemic reported in Virginia could spread to Maryland. But based on emergency room visits, she said, this season has been less severe than previous ones.
That could be because Calvert County, like most Maryland counties this year, had an aggressive vaccination drive.
“We’ve had a successful immunization program this year. We’ve given over 4,400 flu shots,” said Ashley Conway, a communicable disease nurse for the Calvert County Health Department.
“It’s impossible to tell if that contributed to the mild season but we like to think so,” she said.