Flu deaths prompt push for vaccinations

Vaccines readily available at local health department, pharmacies
Jan. 12, 2014 @ 04:28 PM

At least 21 deaths in North Carolina have been linked to seasonal influenza, commonly known as the flu, prompting local officials to urge vaccinations for everyone ages 6 months and older who has not already had a shot.

And Caldwell Memorial Hospital announced that starting Tuesday, any visitors under 18 years of age or anyone exhibiting signs or symptoms of flu-like illness will not be allowed in the hospital unless special exemptions apply. Exemptions include parents of a child being treated at the hospital, the primary caregiver of an admitted patient and those visiting the terminally ill, but those visitors will have to wear a special wrist band and a mask. Other exemptions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

The hospital also is asking people to avoid coming to the emergency room for flu treatment unless they have warning signs, such as difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; sudden dizziness; confusion, severe or persistent vomiting; flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worsening cough; and in babies bluish or gray skin color, lack of responsiveness or extreme irritation. Others who feel they need flu treatment are encouraged to call their doctor or an urgent-care clinic.

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can lead to mild to severe illness, according the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, Ga. Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications. Nineteen of the 21 people who died were either young or middle-aged adults, most of whom had underlying medical conditions, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday.

"More than 50 percent of North Carolina's total population has some form of chronic disease," said State Health Director Robin Gary Cummings. "Conditions like asthma, congestive heart failure and diabetes can increase the risk for complications from flu."

The peak season for flu is January and February. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated each year. Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.

The health department offers flu vaccines Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with no appointment needed. The vaccines are $20, and the health department accepts Medicare, Medicaid and all third-party insurance carriers, Pierce said. The health department also offers state-supplied flu vaccines free to children under 18 who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid.

Area pharmacies have partnered with Caldwell County schools to offer flu shots on-site for employees, and at the Education Center, said Libby Brown, community services director for the school system. The shots are also available at the pharmacies, she added.

Caldwell Memorial Hospital requires all employees and volunteers to be vaccinated for the flu. The hospital's employees are 97-percent compliant this flu season so far, said Valerie Kelly, infection control nurse. CMH also offers on-site immunizations for companies through its Healthworks Services program.

Patients who are admitted to CMH are offered the chance to be given a flu shot before they depart, Kelly said.