TOPICS > Health

More Than 40 States See Widespread Flu Infection

January 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Last year, cases of influenza were at extremely low levels, but the virus has returned with a vengeance. Gwen Ifill talks to Dr. Julie Morita of the Chicago Health Department and Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University about the current flu outbreaks, hitting cities like Chicago and Boston particularly hard.

GWEN IFILL: Now the latest on a flu season that’s hitting early and often.

Reports of widespread infection are now coming in from more than 40 states; 2,200 people have been hospitalized. Eighteen children have died.

The blow has landed especially hard in several cities. In Boston today, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency. And in the Chicago area, more than a dozen hospitals have been so overwhelmed, they have had to turn patients away.

We’re joined by two people following this closely. Dr. Julie Morita is medical director for Chicago’s Health Department. And Dr. William Schaffner is chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University.

Thank you both for joining us.

Dr. Schaffner, is it worse than it has been in the past?

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine: Well, Gwen, last year, we were a little bit spoiled. We had the lowest number of flu cases in the United States for years and years, so flu has come back, and it’s come back early and a bit with a vengeance.

It’s all over the country, and, as you have said, in some cities, it’s causing a lot of illness.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me talk about this matter of degree with you a little bit more, Dr. Schaffner. Is it a matter that it’s coming — it’s coming earlier, but are the symptoms also more severe?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, it has come earlier, Gwen.

And it’s caused prominently by an influenza strain that usually causes a bit more severe illness. So there are a lot of people going to the emergency room and calling up their doctors and complaining about illness and coughing.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Morita, let’s talk about Chicago in particular. how hard — what are you seeing there? How hard is it hitting?

DR. JULIE MORITA, Chicago Department of Public Health: Well, in Chicago, we have numerous symptoms to track influenza activity.

And so we look at the percentage of clinic visits or emergency room visits that are due to influenza illness. And we also look at intensive care unit hospitalizations, as well as pediatric deaths.

And early in December, we started to see that rise in influenza activity. And we actually have had many intensive care unit hospitalizations reported to us.

At this point, we haven’t had any pediatric deaths reported to us, and we’re thankful for that.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned pediatric deaths especially, but are elderly also equally vulnerable?

JULIE MORITA: So, on the intensive care unit hospitalizations that we have had reported to us, the vast majority of them are senior citizens with underlying health conditions.

So, yes, with this particular strain, we know that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are more likely to get seriously ill.

GWEN IFILL: So, let me ask you and then I want to ask Dr. Schaffner this. What do the hospitals do with this added pressure? We mentioned in the introduction about turning some patients away.

JULIE MORITA: So, in the state of Illinois, they have — emergency rooms have a bypass system where they can, for certain reasons, whether it’s low bed availability or backed-up emergency rooms, they can have paramedics and ambulances divert or bypass their emergency rooms with non-critically ill patients to other nearby hospitals.

And so they have been doing that, and that’s what you referred to earlier. The state has been monitoring that very closely to make sure that those hospitals are diverting appropriately and also that people are able to get adequate care.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Schaffner, are you hearing about that same kind of pressure being put on hospitals, but also on emergency room, quick clinics, whatever, as this has continued to build?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, in our neck of the woods, it has not been quite as bad as it is in Chicago.

Emergency rooms and doctor’s offices have been very busy, but we, too, have preparedness plans, such that if the pressure is great, we can share our resources and, if necessary, expedite people being discharged from the hospital just as promptly as possible, so we can facilitate the admission of patients to the hospital.

We have not yet had to implement that sort of — that sort of plan here in Nashville.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Dr. Schaffner, I have to ask you the question that I will bet you every other viewer is thinking right now, which is, I had a flu shot this year. Does that make me impregnable at this point or does this mean I’m just as vulnerable as everyone else?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, just remember, the influenza vaccine is a good vaccine, but it’s not a perfect vaccine. It works best in young, healthy people who have a robust immune system, but, paradoxically, in the people who we would like to protect the most, senior citizens, people with severe underlying immunological illnesses, it’s not quite as effective.

But, even so, it often provides partial protection. It will make a more serious illness milder. It can prevent hospitalization and, of course, death.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Morita, what do you tell people who ask you about vaccination? Obviously, you tell them to go ahead and have it. But what if they come back to you and say, I got sick anyway?

JULIE MORITA: Well, I think it’s important to remember what Dr. Schaffner said and that is it’s not a perfect vaccine.

And so, even though you might have gotten sick, you probably didn’t end up in the hospital or get seriously ill. So it is important to remember that.

The other thing is, there are many other respiratory viruses that are circulating at this time, and the flu vaccine only prevents flu infections. So people might be getting sick with other infections as well.

GWEN IFILL: So at this point in the year, it’s possible to get sick with other infections. It’s possible to suffer from related diseases.

And maybe you have already had one shot. Is it worth it for someone who didn’t have a flu shot, Dr. Morita, first to you, and Dr. Schaffner, to go ahead and do it at this late date anyway?

JULIE MORITA: Absolutely.

At this point, we’re still seeing an increase in influenza activity, so the flu season is not over. So as long as we’re seeing influenza activity, we’re recommending that people get vaccinated, if they haven’t gotten vaccinated already.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Schaffner?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: You bet. I agree completely.

But don’t linger. Get on about it.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Protect yourself as — protect yourself, as well as those around you. You don’t want to transmit this virus to people with whom you work and people you love in your family.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I’m proud I got mine. I’m going to pass it on to everyone else.

Dr. Schaffner, Dr. Morita, thank you both so much.

JULIE MORITA: Thank you.