Flu season hits Steamboat Springs early, experts offer mixed forecast
January 28, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The bad news is that the influenza season hit early this year, and while Paul Hill, the laboratory section head and infectious prevention coordinator at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, would love to tell people that the flu season is over — he can’t just yet.
In its latest statement, the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment is reporting the influenza outbreak in Colorado has plateaued and is starting to decline. According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of positive flu tests are dropping, but the number of people going to doctors with flu symptoms is increasing.
Still, Hill remains optimistic that an end may be in sight.
"Looks like we have seen the worse, and it's starting to decline both locally statewide and nationally," Hill said. "It was probably a little bit worse season than typical, but similar to the other seasons in which we see this particular strain."
That strain, the H3N2 virus, is the same strain that hit the area during the 2014-15 season and resulted in similar numbers of positive test results and hospitalizations. This year, Hill has seen 70 test positive for influenza, but he points out that number only reflects the cases that have tested at the hospital. He said many physicians offices in Steamboat conduct their own tests, and in other cases, physicians may skip the test entirely and simply treat the patient as if they have the flu
"If it looks like the flu, and it smells like the flu, then it's probably the flu," Hill said. "You don't always have to have a positive test to move forward with treatment."
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Hill said the flu hit early this year, and the number of positive cases is up from this time last year but only slightly. He said 10 people in Routt County have been hospitalized with influenza, and that is up from eight last year.
But Josh Holm, a registered nurse and clinic manager for Northwest Colorado Health, said while the data may be indicating a slower pace, he said there are still plenty of residents coming through the clinic doors in both Routt and Moffat counties.
Those clinics have had 35 people test positive for the flu between Nov. 1, 2017, and Jan. 24, including six Wednesday. He said the clinics had 15 during that same period last year.
"We have been seeing a definite marked increase from normal," Holm said. "Right now, we are still seeing a steady stream of it everyday. It's hard to say that it's been tapering off at all at this point."
Both Holm and Hill said people need to take basic precautions to avoid the flu, and they also remind people that it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
"Getting the shot still will strengthen your immune system and help your immune system respond to the virus," Holm sad. "It takes two weeks to become fully effective, so the sooner you get the shot the better. There are many strains of the flu each year, and the Center for Disease Control is trained to predict which strain is going to be most prevalent. Some years the shot is a little more effective — this is not our greatest year in that respect."
Both men also stressed that frequent hand washing will keep the virus from getting passed through the community, and good cough etiquette is also key. Hill and Holm both recommend that people cough into their elbows instead of covering their mouth with their hand and then touching doorknobs, countertops or other places that people touch with their hands.
They also said that employees and students should stay home if they start showing signs of the flu — fever, headache, body aches and sore throat— and should stay there for 24 hours after they have stopped running a fever without the help of medications like Tylenol and Motrin.
Cathy LaPointe, a registered nurse who works in the Steamboat Springs School District, said she has seen students with the flu this fall and winter, but that the school doesn't keep exact records.
"There is no definite way to measure it," LaPointe said. "We got a lot of parents that call in and say their children have the flu, or we have a student come into the office with symptoms, but we don't really know if it is the flu or not."
Local health officials were not ready to label the severity of this year’s flu season, but they did encourage area residents to take the influenza seriously.
“There are many deaths every year from the flu, and it can be a very serious disease,” Hill said.