November sees spike in flu cases

Dr. John Browning and nurse Angela Nash review flu statistics at North Mississippi Medical Center's Medical and Urgent Care Clinic in West Point.
Staff Writer

An unusual November cold snap may have contributed to an early outbreak of the flu in the Golden Triangle, mirroring trends happening across the nation, medical professionals say.

"The flu has arrived in West Point, it's early, but it has arrived," said Dr. John Browning of North Mississippi Medical Center's Medical and Urgent Care Clinic. "It hit Columbus and now it is here. Two Fridays ago, I saw two cases, and two more on Saturday and then on Sunday, I saw seven. It's jumped that fast," Browning continued, noting he's been seeing a mix of infuenza A, the harsher of the strains, and influenza B.

Starkville-based OCH Regional Medical Center tells the same storyAccording to Amy Coggins, a nurse in the hospital's Infection Control Department, "We have doubled our numbers from October to November."

In October, OCH had 59 people with influenza-like illness.

In November, that number doubled to 118 people who met the state's criteria for influenza-like illness, she noted. Even more striking, the hospital had two people test positive on a rapid-flu swab in October and 46 in November.

And while the flu often is associated with older adults, that's not what's happening at OCH, where the most likely patients have been in the 0-4 and 5-24 age groups, Coggins said, noting tests confirmed by the state have been for Flu A, which also sometimes is known as seasonal flu or its official name -- H3N2.

In addition to the flu, clinics say they are seeing more people who don't test positive for the flu but do have strep throat or severe cold symptoms.

And the cases are striking entire families. Browning cited a case of a mother and two daughters and another case of a mother and son both testing positive. In cases where families are at risk, his staff tries to treat the rest of the family with

Tamiflu to stop the illness from spreading. And Browning says almost all the patients who have tested positive for the flu have not had a flu vaccination.

In contrast to what's happening in the Golden Triangle, Browning noted he saw more than 100 patients at the NMMCTupelo emergency room during the weekend and none of them were flu cases. And he's heard through the medical community grapevine that the Jackson area also has seen a spike.

Nationwide, four states -- Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Massachusetts -- already are reporting widespread flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No states were in that category at this time last year. Mississippi and Arkansas are among 10 states reporting regional outbreaks, like what is being seen in the Golden Triangle.

According to the CDC, Browning's observations are not isolated. Doctors in Tennessee and Georgia say flu cases are up "dramatically" in the last two weeks.

Fortunately, Browning has not had to hospitalize anyone.

However, he notes that could change "any day," especially if more Influenza A cases show up.

"We usually get the cases in groups, first type A and then type B, but we've seen a pretty even mix so far this year. But that could change. And fortunately, it's not as severe as say seven or eight years ago when we had the swine flu," the doctor said. Browning thinks cold temperatures in mid-November contributed to the flu's early arrival.

"It got cold and people huddled together inside with each other for several days. That could be part of it. People think cold weather brings on the illness. It's actually people being close together and coughing all over each other and sharing germs. They can't go outside and play," he explained. "I hope we really are just having this spike and it will go away for awhile. We usually don't have the worst of it until February or March ... it was March last year. So we hope it's not going to last for several more weeks," he continued.

Last week, the CDC confirmed 7,000 flu cases in the United States. The early outbreak confirms what some scientists predicted based on the flu season in Australia.

Australia experiences winter and the flu while Americans are having summer. In the summer of 2017, the flu was diagnosed in more Australians than the previous season — 168,337 versus 91,000 —with H3N2 predominant.

Browning and other doctors in the region say they are surprised to see continued opposition to flu shots in some segments of the population.

"The anti-vaccine sentiment still is out there. I've been surprised to run into it recently in my circles," Browning said. "It's not too late to get a flu shot and people should. It's in the best interest of the entire community's health," he continued.

Medical professionals note that vaccines won't necessarily stop people from getting sick. However, while vaccinated people can still get sick, generally they get a milder and less dangerous form of the illness.

A flu shot is especially important for adults aged 50 and older. Because the influenza virus triggers an inflammatory response in the body, in the two to eight weeks after recovering, older adults have a three to five times increased risk of having a heart attack and a two to three times increased risk of having a stroke, experts say