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Flu deaths decline in S.C. with 22 reported in 8th week of widespread influenza

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Libby Holst wears a mask while waiting to see a doctor at Roper St. Francis Express Care on James Island on Thursday, January 18, 2018. Holst, who got a flu shot, was diagnosed with flu type A. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Twenty-two new flu-related deaths were reported in South Carolina in the last week, the Department of Health and Environmental Control said Wednesday, showing a decline in deaths compared with previous weeks.

But Dr. Ludwig Lettau, an infectious disease specialist with Trident Health, said he doesn't think the flu has let up yet this year.

People should get the flu shot if they have not yet, he said. 

"It’s important to avail yourself of all the protections," Lettau said. "It’s still not too late to get vaccinated."

Of the 22 new cases the agency reported, six occurred in prior weeks. DHEC's latest reporting period runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. 

So far this season, influenza has killed 106 South Carolinians. The season traditionally runs from October until May. 

According to DHEC, there were 18,726 cases of the flu, or 1,504 cases fewer than the week prior. With more than 3,000 cases, Greenville County has been hit hardest in the last week. Influenza A was the most common strain.

There have been 81,071 cases of the flu in South Carolina so far this season, according to DHEC. There have been 518 hospitalizations across the state in the last week, which is a decline of about 14 percent from the week before. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 16 children died from influenza in the final week of January, bringing the total to 53. The CDC reports only pediatric deaths. National data is behind somewhat compared to state information. The CDC will release its information for the first week of February later this week.

Flu activity is still widespread by the CDC's calculation in every state except Hawaii and Oregon. South Carolina and Colorado were the first two states to report increased flu activity back in the first week of October, according to the CDC. The state first reported widespread activity in mid-December.

Lettau said the H3N2 strain, or Influenza A, is the culprit behind this year's active season. Decisions about what will be in the flu vaccine are made months before flu cases begin to emerge, and Lettau said H3N2 is "always a tough one to match up."

Lettau encouraged the public to go to a clinic and begin treatment, especially if they have a fever, which he said was almost a sure sign of flu this time of year. He said Tamiflu, the anti-viral, is a safe drug that few people are resistant to. 

Some pharmacies in the Charleston area said they are seeing some shortages of Tamiflu and the flu vaccine.

Pharmacies reported they are restocking day-by-day as the flu season wares on. A representative for CVS Pharmacy on King Street said they had two more flu shots and that more of the remaining medication is being allocated to the chain's busier pharmacies in the area.

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A representative for the Publix Pharmacy on Ben Sawyer Boulevard in Mount Pleasant said they had no more flu shots for people under 65 years old. She said they did still have Tamiflu in stock in both liquid and tablet form. 

And Delta Pharmacy, which owns seven pharmacies in the area, is stocking the drugs on a day-to-day basis. A representative said the pharmacies have used all of their normal supply of Tamiflu and are now stocking as needed. 

She said pharmacies don't want to overshoot its stock of the drugs because they are non-returnable and they don't want to have a surplus. 

Flu is caused by a virus and leads to death most often in infants and the elderly.

Area schools are still feeling the stress of flu cases, too. 

Andy Pruitt, spokesman for the Charleston County School District, said there were 973 visits to school nurses for flu-like symptoms in all of January, and 498 so far in February. There are about 50,000 students in the district.

Teachers have been missing school, as well. Pruitt said there have been on average 167 substitute teaching requests per day from the district's teaching staff so far this month. There are about 3,300 teachers in the district.

Katie Orvin Tanner, spokeswoman for the Berkeley County School District, said schools there have been seeing many cases of influenza, though it is unsurprising given the number of cases reported in the state. She said they have not been higher at any particular school.

Custodial staff is working to ventilate and disinfect areas as much as possible, she said in a statement. The same is true for Charleston and Dorchester county schools. Schools are asking kids and employees to avoid coming in if they are sick with flu-like symptoms.

"We definitely have increased absences by staff and students, certainly over this same time last year," said Pat Raynor, a spokeswoman for Dorchester District 2. "We sent information home with parents, tips on how to minimize, let’s hope, the possibility of their family getting the flu."

When flu does kill, Lettau said it is usually paired with other health issues. But he said death and other serious cases are not always predictable. He stressed that if you begin to feel sick, see a doctor.

"It needs to be taken seriously," Lettau said. "Not just for yourself, but for your family."

Deanna Pan contributed to this report.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, covers health care for The Post and Courier. She is also pursuing a master's degree in data science. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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