Influenza is now considered to be “widespread” in Pennsylvania as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with health officials reporting outbreaks in at least half the regions of the state.
The Pennsylvania Health Department reports 1,159 cases of influenza between Sept. 29 and Dec. 21. The hardest hit areas are in western Pennsylvania led by Blair, Butler and Allegheny counties with 79, 76 and 72 cases respectively. These numbers are based on a “positive” result by “any test type” including "rapid testing," where results can be known within 15 minutes, but there can be "false positives" when the specimens are then sent to labs.
Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Department of Health, says the county only counts "laboratory-confirmed" cases and for the first three months of the flu season there have been 19 confirmed cases in addition to the 53 "rapid test" cases.
"We are on the upswing for cases, this is what one would typically see for this period of the year," says Hacker. "There's still a chance you can get your flu vaccine; that would help the situation. The more people who have vaccinations, the less likely we are to have a really bad flu season."
For the first three months of last flu season, there were 33 confirmed cases in Allegheny County, "one could argue we're not as bad as last year" Hacker says.
Flu is usually the worst in January or February, although last year the illness hit the U.S. very hard in early December. According to the CDC, last year’s flu season landed about 381,000 people in the hospital nationwide. That's the most since at least 2005.
A contributing factor—the flu vaccine was only 51 percent effective overall in terms of the "match" of the vaccine with the influenza strains. "There seemed to be some problems with the vaccine last year and the 'match' particularly with elderly patients" according to Hacker. "This year the match seems to be much better so we are hoping to have a better flu season this year."
Hacker says this year's numbers "are not that important" because after all, it is flu season. "We have not seen enormous numbers that would make us take pause right now in terms of what's out there. The thing that we're really looking at is this trajectory and how quickly does it rise."