114 flu deaths in NC, ‘could be one or two’ in Richmond County

By Kevin Spradlin

Related coverage
* Jan. 7 — Flu sufferers urged to avoid emergency departments
* Oct. 2 — Health Department offers flu, pneumonia vaccines

Taking the easy approach and asking state or local health officials for the number of flu-related deaths in Richmond County is kind of like getting a flu shot this year — it might not work. What makes this flu season troublesome is the strain Influenza A (H3N2) .

“H3N2-predominant seasons have been associated with more severe illness and mortality, especially in older people and young children, relative to seasons during H1N1 or B viruses predominated,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services indicate its agency policy not to reveal any “details surrounding influenza-associated deaths, including hometown, county, age and sex of the decedent … to protect privacy.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.14.08 AMHowever, the federal law that protects patient privacy — referred to as HIPAA — is generally not intended to block all such information from the public.

Kevin Howell, legal communications coordinator with the state Department of Health and Human Services, told The Pee Dee Post by email that “there is not one area of the state that is more vulnerable than another. Our public health experts encourage everyone to get vaccinated as the first line of defense, practice good hygiene … and to contact a physician to discuss the use of anti-viral medications if someone is exhibiting flu symptoms.”

Howell said some county health departments are releasing by-county flu-related deaths. He didn’t distinguish how that didn’t violate a patient’s privacy while his office releasing the same data would violate a patient’s privacy.

Rachel Seeger is with the Office of Civil Rights under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She echoed Howell’s sentiments and suggested that “in very rural counties, that can be extremely identifiable to the decedent’s family and friends. The release of that type of information is considered impermissible.”

Seeger said a decedent’s county of residence is one of 18 indicators covered under HIPAA. When asked of county health departments that choose to release such information are violating HIPAA, she said no.

Locally, the county health director told The Pee DeePost that he’s unsure whether or not there have been any flu-related deaths in Richmond County.

“They are not directly reported back to us,” Jarrell said by email. “Although I’m not personally aware of any, I expect there could possibly be one or two.”

Across the state, 114 people have died from influenza-related symptoms since early October 2014 through Thursday. Of the 114 deaths, 91 have been over the age of 64, 12 between the ages of 50 and 64, nine between the ages of 25 and 49 and two between the ages of 5 and 17.

There were 15 new flu deaths reported in the week ending Jan. 17. The 2014-15 influenza season began Sept. 28, 2014.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.13.05 AMIn regional hospitals, the virus is taking a toll on emergency department manpower. At FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital, officials note 283 patients — or 7.5 percent of total traffic — have been seen for the flu in the emergency department between Nov. 30 and Jan. 10. At Moore Regional Hospital, it’s 397 cases (5.5 percent). In Hoke County, it’s 8 percent (333 cases) while at Montgomery Memorial it’s 8.4 percent (136 cases).

In that same time period across the four hospitals, there have been a total of 16,817 emergency department patients and 1,149 (6.8 percent) of them have been for the flu.

Jarrell said health department officials have given approximately 800 flu shots “and we have about 20 doses remaining” as of early Thursday.

“The vaccine is also available at some local pharmacies and physician offices,” Jarrell said. “Although it has been determined that the vaccine may not be as effective this year, it still provides protection to help prevent flu or reduce impact for those who may get it. I do not have the number of cases, although activity has been very high in recent weeks — not only for flu but other virus as well.”

Jayne Lee said it’s still important to still get a flu shot if you haven’t done so already. Lee, a registered nurse, is director of information control and patient safety for FirstHealth of the Carolinas.

“Yes, it is getting better,” Lee said. “The (number of) cases of flu are definitely coming down. We did have the highest number of flu cases back in December than we’ve had in the last five years. It has been a very bad flu season.”

While this year and last seemed to have offered peak flu seasons in December, Lee noted that is not typical.

“We’re just now reaching the time of what we consider normal high flu season,” Lee said. “It’s normally high in January, February and March.”

A flu shot this year has decreased one’s chances of seeing a doctor by 23 percent, according to a recent CDC report. The average effectiveness is around 60 percent. Regardless, Lee said it’s important to practice good personal hygiene habits, such as washing hands and covering your mouth when coughing or your nose when sneezing.

“Keeping your hands away from your face,” is also important, she said. “It’s a very difficult thing that so many people, myself included, do it subconsciously. But in a very high flu season … is a time to consciously think about not putting your hands on your face.”


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