Number of positive rapid flu tests so far could signal busy flu season

A public health nurse demonstrates drawing flu vaccine from a bottle.

The number of lab-tested influenza cases confirmed in South Carolina over past five weeks is still fairly low, but if positive rapid antigen tests are any measure of what’s coming, it could be a very busy flu season.

There were roughly three times as many positive rapid flu tests across the state during the week ending Oct. 26 compared with the same week last year, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s weekly flu report.

Of the 146 positive rapid tests reported to the health department last week, 30 of them came from Charleston County, far more than any other county in South Carolina.

Last year, there were only 55 positive rapid tests statewide during the same week.

Since Sept. 29, when DHEC starting tracking the flu, 72 positive rapid tests have been reported in Charleston.

“We do see a big increase in rapid flu tests this week as compared to last week,” said DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden. “Monitoring rapid flu tests from doctors’ offices is one component of our influenza surveillance activities.”

Rapid flu tests can be an early indicator of increasing flu activity in the state, he said, but sometimes this test produces a false positive.

“Monitoring all indicators over the next week or so will give us a better idea if this is a true increase in influenza activity,” he said. DHEC publishes a flu report every week during flu season.

Approximately 63,700 South Carolinians tested positive by a rapid test for the flu during the 2012-2013 flu season, compared with only 2,552 positive tests during the 2011-2012 season.

Last season, more than 1,700 residents in the state were hospitalized with the flu and 46 died from it, including five children.

Plowden also confirmed that shipments of back-ordered flu vaccines have arrived at county health departments across the state.

Earlier this month, DHEC said it would only provide the vaccines to residents without insurance and that patients with Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance policies needed to be vaccinated elsewhere.

Those restrictions have been lifted now, Plowden said.

Flu shots cost $25 for adults and $13 for children at DHEC clinics.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.