If you’re noticing more family, friends and coworkers stuck at home with fevers, chills and muscle aches, there’s a reason for it.
New Jersey is in peak flu season.
Reported influenza activity statewide is more than 13 times as high as mid-February last year. Experts say residents should be more diligent than ever to avoid spreading the flu, especially to vulnerable populations such as young children.
The good news is that people can still get flu shots.
Mike Heck, registered nurse and infection preventionist at AtlantiCare, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health departments recommend people get the flu vaccine up to the end of March, as the season can extend through April.
The state has seen more than 7,000 reported flu cases since October, with an uptick starting after Christmas, according to the state Department of Health. There were only 512 recorded cases at this time last year.
The majority of cases this season are from the Type A (H3N2) flu strain.
Experts say most of those cases represent people who get ill and may have other risk factors, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma, which leads to hospitalization. Or, they include others such as young children and pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.
Anne Goodman oversees child care programs and classes as director of the Cape Regional Early Education Center in Cape May Court House. State health regulations require that all children at child care facilities be vaccinated for the flu by Dec. 31.
“If they chose to opt out, we have to exclude them from the childcare center until flu season is over,” Goodman said. “The immune systems of small children are still developing, making them more susceptible to catching those diseases.”
There have been no pediatric deaths from flu in New Jersey this flu season, but there have been 20 deaths in children across the country. The national death toll is nearly double what it was at this time last year.
Goodman and health experts at the child care center take extra precautions during flu season. Children washed their hands before beginning classroom activities on a recent Wednesday morning, part of their daily routine. Parents who may show symptoms of a cold or the flu will be asked to wear a face mask.
The center hasn’t recorded any flu cases among its children yet, but it still sends notices home with parents to remind them about hand washing, the signs and symptoms of flu versus norovirus, or stomach virus, and how to properly disinfect and clean their homes during an outbreak.
Dr. John Hoey, AtlantiCare Physician Group Primary Care, said the flu vaccine is a person’s best chance of preventing sickness, but a so-called mild or light flu season the previous year may cause some people to take their chances without vaccination in future seasons, thus resulting in more sick people.
“What we’re hearing in the public arena is that people didn’t get the shot because it wasn’t effective for them last year, and then that becomes a public health issue,” he said. “You need to get the shot. Getting it annually can help strengthen the immune system.”
The flu vaccine isn’t a guaranteed way to avoid the flu. Scientists make vaccines based on the best estimates of what flu strains may circulate in the upcoming season.
The CDC reported last week that vaccines are proving to be 48 percent effective against the flu this year.
Aside from young children, not everyone is required to get the vaccine, although many workplaces, health providers, schools and public facilities encourage people to get them.
Janice Cambron, executive director of Seashore Gardens Living Center in Galloway Township, said staff and residents are highly encouraged to get vaccinated in the fall.
The center also has protocols in place during flu season to protect at-risk elderly residents from contracting the flu.
“We monitor the signs and symptoms every day for residents and staff,” said Cambron. “If we see it escalating, signs come up that say, ‘Don’t come in when you have a cold or don’t feel well.’”
It takes about two weeks for someone to develop immunity against the flu after getting the vaccine.
“Remember, if you’re sick, stay home,” Hoey said.