Fifteen people, most of them 65 years old and older, have died from influenza in Indiana so far this flu season, with five of the deaths confirmed since Wednesday, the state health department said.
“Three weeks ago, we weren’t seeing anything, but now it’s here,” said Cindy Dunlevy, an infection prevention specialist at Columbus Regional Hospital.
The increase in flu-like cases has been “very dramatic and busy, matching national trends,” she added.
Eight deaths have been reported in Indiana since Jan. 3. The Indiana State Department of Health doesn’t identify where a flu death occurs, however, unless a particular county has at least five fatal cases. On Thursday, health department spokesman Ken Severson said no county has reached that threshold.
Carla Wolff, head of nursing at the Bartholomew County Health Department, said reports of flu in the Columbus area have increased steadily since Christmas, and in the past week or so “we’ve heard of more positive tests.”
But Wolff said she knows of no flu deaths in Bartholomew County at this stage.
Statewide, 12 of the reported flu deaths involved patients 65 and older; another case affected a person between 50 and 64 years old; and two other deaths involved patients 5 to 18 years old, the latest state flu report states.
The apparent increase in flu and flu-like cases in southern Indiana comes as the rest of the nation also is seeing an earlier onslaught of the disease.
Flu usually doesn’t blanket the country until late January or February, but it’s now considered widespread in more than 40 states.
“We are now well into what appears to be a somewhat severe flu season,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Gregory Larkin.
Family physician Dr. Brian Niedbalksi of Columbus, who also is the Bartholomew County health officer, said his office hasn’t seen a lot of influenza cases yet, but he believes an uptick is likely coming.
“We had our first case in this office last week, and I suspect it’s just a matter of time before we see increased activity,” Niedbalksi said.
He added that patients coming to him with flu-like symptoms don’t always have a strain of influenza.
Other similar viral infections can cause symptoms such as fever, fatigue, cough and muscle aches.
Wolff said more adults are reading reports of flu sweeping the U.S., and they’re calling to get the flu vaccine. She said the county health department continues to make appointments for people who want to get the vaccine, and she believes her agency has an adequate supply on hand for children and adults.
A number of medical offices and drugstores also offer flu shots.
In the Columbus area, school officials said the number of students missing school because of illness remains at normal levels, although Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. are monitoring the situation.
“We’ve seen some flu and some stomach virus going around,” said Kathy Griffey, superintendent with Flat Rock-Hawcreek schools. “We’ve had some absentees, but nothing extreme at this point.”
Griffey said school officials are taking routine precautions, reminding students and teachers to wash their hands frequently and encouraging people who feel ill to stay home.
BCSC Superintendent John Quick said his school system has been fortunate so far as well, with routine absence levels reported.
“Right now, knock on wood, we’ve been avoiding the flu, although we’re encouraging our people to get the vaccine,” Quick said.
Health officers said the 2012-2013 vaccine protects against the three most common strains of influenza: H3N2, H1N1 and influenza B.
Indiana health officials said some cases of H1N1 and influenza B have been reported, but the more virulent H3N2 strain appears to be the predominant one so far in the state by a wide margin. It tends to make people sicker.
“Typically, H3N2 seasons tend to be more severe, with a higher number of hospitalizations and deaths,” Larkin said.
“Anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms should contact their health care provider, even if they have been vaccinated.”
Nationally, some hospitals have stopped or curtailed visiting hours or asked people mingling with patients to wear protective masks.
Nothing that dramatic has been implemented in Bartholomew County at this point, but Columbus Regional Hospital officials said they’re encouraging visitors not to come to the hospital if they feel sick or believe they’ve been exposed to the flu.
Columbus Regional made the flu vaccine mandatory for employees this year for the first time. It is now a condition of employment, although exceptions are allowed for employees who, for medical or religious reasons, choose not to take the flu shot.
Also, the hospital offers shots to all inpatients 6 months old and up.
It started offering the flu vaccine to patients in mid-September this year and will give it through March 31.
The flu’s early arrival in the U.S. this season coincided with spikes in a variety of other viruses, including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes what some people call stomach flu.
Most people don’t undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, physicians say.
On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu usually peaks in midwinter.
The last bad flu season involved a swine flu that hit in two waves in the spring and fall of 2009.
But that was considered a unique strain, different from the regular winter flu, health officials said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.