Influenza has taken advantage of the holiday season to spread throughout Tooele County, resulting in four hospitalizations and a suspected flu-related death.
Flu activity is elevated within the county and across the state, said Louise Ekenstam, an epidemiology nurse with the Tooele County Health Department. An increase in the number of reported influenza cases was expected over the holidays, but Ekenstam said the virus at this point is spreading faster than it did last year.
“With everything that I’m hearing and seeing, it has definitely picked up state-wide,” she said. “It is expected, but we did not have four hospitalized at this time last year.”
Ekenstam said it isn’t clear yet why the virus has been so aggressive this year. Most of the confirmed cases were caused by a typical influenza virus, not a new strain, which would be more difficult to predict and consequently more difficult to prevent.
If more people were out and about during the holidays, that could have contributed to the problem, she said. But she also suspected few people have received a vaccination this year. Of all the confirmed cases in Tooele so far, none of them had received a flu vaccine.
“There’s nothing to indicate a different strain,” she said, “but if there’s anything we can do to prevent the spread of influenza, we need to take those measures now.”
While the usual cough and cold etiquette should also be observed, Ekenstam stressed the importance of vaccination and self-isolation. Those who do get sick should stay home, Ekenstam said, and everyone should consider getting a flu shot—even those who are healthy and unconcerned about getting the flu.
“Any time we have influenza spreading in our community, it’s of concern to me,” she said. Healthy individuals may not think the flu is much more problematic than the common cold, she added, but they can easily pass the virus to at-risk populations such as children, the elderly, and people with asthma or other health conditions.
According to an obituary published this week in the Salt Lake Tribune, 47-year-old Maria Schuster, a Tooele resident, died Dec. 26 after being hospitalized for the flu at the University of Utah. Ekenstam said the case was unconfirmed as of yet, but that the flu was the suspected cause of death. If confirmed, the case would be the first flu-related death reported in Utah for the 2013-2014 flu season.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 36,000 people die every year from the flu.
Ekenstam said she has had a number of patients come in to ask whether it is too late to get vaccinated. While the vaccine does take two weeks to take effect, Ekenstam said this year’s flu season has yet to hit its peak, and that there is still plenty of vaccine left.
The Tooele County Health Department holds flu clinics at 151 N. Main Street every Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Financial assistance is available for those who may not be able to afford a flu shot.