As flu deaths and hospitalizations keep mounting in South Carolina, public anxiety seems to be rising, too.
Numbers published by the state health department this week show influenza activity is widespread throughout the state. In fact, it's widespread across the country. The flu is everywhere — all at once.
It has hit schools and day care centers and churches. It has even surfaced in the Statehouse and in The Post and Courier newsroom.
But none of this is particularly unusual. It's just a rough flu season.
"When we see years of predominant H3N2, we do see more severe disease in the population," said Dr. Katherine Richardson, medical director of the Lowcountry public health region of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
She was referring to the strain of flu that is widely circulating this year — H3N2. Historically, this strain makes people more sick. And this season "is falling in line" with past seasons when H3N2 was predominant, she said.
Take the 2014-15 season, for example. More than 150 people died in South Carolina from the flu. DHEC reported that 82,000 positive antigen flu tests were administered and nearly 3,400 people were hospitalized.
This season, the numbers so far are much lower. To date, 46 people in South Carolina died from the flu between early October and Jan. 20. Nearly 40,000 positive rapid antigen detection tests have been administered and nearly 1,800 patients have been hospitalized. The flu season traditionally runs through May.
Nationally, it's hard to gauge how many people have died from the flu because the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not publish weekly adult flu fatalities. In recent years, annual flu deaths in the United States have ranged from about 12,000 deaths during a mild season to 56,000 deaths during a harsh one.
So far this year, CDC numbers show that 30 children have died from the flu in the United States. None of those deaths occurred in South Carolina.
That could change. DHEC spokeswoman Adrianna Bradley said flu activity is showing no signs of slowing down.
"We really don’t know when the season activity will peak," she said.
Typically symptoms start with a runny nose, a sore throat and a fever.
"When we see the fever, we’re like, 'Oh, something’s happening here,' " said Heather Collins, director of Loving and Learning day care in West Ashley. Ten children who attend Loving and Learning have been diagnosed with the flu, she said.
"It seems very abnormal," Collins said.
Typically, it's two or three kids at a time — tops.
"Lots of hand washing," Collins recommended. "Lysol everything."
Local school officials are watching flu activity closely, too.
Wendy Judy, a school nurse at St. George Middle School, said they are experiencing "increased absences due to illness at our schools — some flu cases and some stomach viruses."
At the Berkeley County School District spelling bee Wednesday evening, seven of the 38 students slated to compete had called out sick, according to one teacher, many with the flu.
Dorchester County School District 2 Nurse Coordinator Bobbi Hardy contacted DHEC after one elementary school had seven documented cases of teachers or students contracting the flu, according to spokeswoman Pat Raynor. Raynor was not able to say which school it was.
Raynor said officials are “definitely monitoring” the flu and will post outbreak prevention tips on its website.
“I don’t know what we would do without a school nurse in every school, but they certainly monitor any illness outbreak and keep her informed and certainly comply with DHEC regulations,” Raynor said.
Meanwhile, the Charleston County School District reported 166 absent students have been "coded with the flu" so far in January, compared to only 38 students with a similar code during January 2017.
Schools nurses employed by the district have reported 392 visits from students with flu-like symptoms this month, a spokesman confirmed.
Richardson, the DHEC medical director in the Lowcountry, urged residents to get a flu shot. While it may not be a perfect match, the vaccine will offer some protection. Plus, most health insurance plans cover it for free.
The same cannot be said for medical appointments or hospitalizations.
Most flu patients don't necessarily need to see a doctor, Richardson said.
Unless a patient is particularly worried about the severity of their illness or has been diagnosed with some underlying health condition, they may consider just staying home.
"Obviously, you could get a flu test to know exactly what it is and if you go early in the illness, you could be prescribed an antiviral, which could shorten the severity and duration of your illness," Richardson said.
But, she said, "That doesn’t cure it."
Paul Bowers and Deanna Pan contributed to this report.