LIHUE — With the flu season in full swing, public health care officials are bracing for more cases over the next few months but are so far seeing normal numbers statewide.
“We watch it closely and we have been concerned since flu season started on the Mainland,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said on Tuesday.
Still, residents and public health officials alike say they aren’t taking any chances.
Eileen Nakaahiki, operating room manager at Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waimea, said she has always made it a point to get her flu shot every year.
“The flu can kill you,” Nakaahiki said. “I have had flu shots from the time they started doing it. I never really got the flu really bad. I got other illnesses, but not severe flu.”
Mary Lou Jardin, obstetrics nurse at Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital, said she must get the flu shot every year because she works with babies and pregnant mothers who are more susceptible to the virus but has learned about how important it is from experience.
“I’ve been there — had the flu, relapsed,” Jardin recalled. “It was horrible for two weeks.”
Other residents say they may be reluctant to get their flu shots, but do so out of necessity.
“I don’t like needles,” Waimea Canyon Middle School student Bella Bateman said. “My mom had to hold me, but I got mine this year. I’ve had it every year.”
Administrators from Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, which operates Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital in Kapaa and Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waimea, said they are seeing a slight jump in the number of flu cases but that it is not out of the ordinary.
“The number of flu cases that both of our emergency departments (SMMH and KVMH) are seeing is normal for this time of year — a few cases a week, they are not overwhelmed with flu,” HHSC spokeswoman Missy Keyes-Saiki wrote in an email.
What is of concern to health care officials nationwide, Park said, is the fact that a particular strain of the flu has drifted, or mutated, making the vaccine now available less effective against preventing it.
“There was an expectation that we might start to see disease associated with that drifted strain, and certainly, that’s what has been causing a lot of the issues on the Mainland, so we’re watching it very closely and are seeing disease activity related to that strain here as well,” Park said.
In all, about 10 percent of the 10,831 potential flu specimens tested statewide since October, or 1,145 individual specimens, confirmed the presence of the influenza virus, according to the most recent state Department of Health report published on Jan. 3.
Of those specimens in Hawaii that tested positive for the influenza, more than 93 percent of them, or 1,063 individual samples, were caused by the strain of influenza not covered by vaccines now administered by health care providers nationwide.
“It makes sense, if you think about it, because people aren’t immune to it — it’s a mutated strain,” Park said. “You’d expect that if there’s a new kid on the block, so to speak, people are going to want to get to know it. In this case, what I’m saying is, don’t.”
Although no influenza-associated deaths among children have been reported in Hawaii for this flu season, about 109 of the 1,028 deaths reported since the start of the flu season in October were attributed to pneumonia or influenza.
Park said the statewide numbers are not broken down by island but explained that it’s common for certain areas to experience higher influenza cases than others.
“What may be different this year is that we are seeing flu-like symptoms in patients that have had the flu shot,” Keyes-Saiki wrote in an email.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers estimate the overall effectiveness of this year’s seasonal vaccine for preventing influenza infections is 23 percent, based on initial tests conducted on 2,321 people between November and January at five U.S. medical facilities.
“It’s a good reminder to folks that, while we definitely hold the vaccine as our best method of prevention, people need to remember it’s not our only method of prevention and certainly not the only one you should rely on,” Park said.