ITHACA, N.Y. — Flu rates in Tompkins County are well above average for this time of year, increasing more than tenfold in December compared to last year. The local numbers align with a national trend of what professionals are saying could be the worst flu season in history.

In December 2016, seven cases of the flu were reported. In 2017, about 100 cases were reported in December, Samantha Hillson, director of health promotion at the Tompkins County Health Department, said. In 2014, when the flu was also widespread throughout the country, only 59 cases were reported in December.

“It’s pretty striking, the difference,” she said. “Tompkins County is trending similar to what’s going on nationally in terms of seeing an increased rate of the flu this season, and the peak of the season seems to be coming earlier than it has been in the past.”

Hillson said it’s important to remember that the numbers provided are only indicative of lab-confirmed cases of the flu. It does not reflect the number of people who had the flu but did not seek medical treatment for it.

Even without those numbers, though, the Centers for Disease Control has stated that the flu is widespread in 49 states, including New York.

One reason for the spike in numbers is that the H3N2 strain, or type A, is the predominant strain being reported. The flu vaccine does not work as well on that particular strain, but officials are still encouraging people to get vaccinated, especially vulnerable individuals, such as people over 65 years old, children under 5 years old, and people with comprised immune systems.

It’s estimated that the vaccine will be about 10 – 30 percent effective this year, but the CDC is still encouraging people to get the shot to help stop the spread of flu and to reduce the severity of the symptoms.

But Hillson said that the H3N2 strain isn’t the sole cause of the widespread flu, at least locally. There are other factors that play a role, such as the number of people who choose to get vaccinated and the population of vulnerable people.

“Really, to keep everyone safe, the best prevention is still getting that flu shot even if it’s not as effective as we would like. There are many strains of the flu, so we know it’s not 100 percent protective,” Hillson said. “Symptoms will be less severe than if you did not get the shot.”

Statewide, officials are also taking action to combat influenza.

According to a news release from Governor Andrew Cuomo, hospitals statewide are monitoring bed capacity, vaccine quantities, and antiviral medications. State officials are also remaining in contact with the CDC to ensure vaccine availability. And Cuomo is also directing people to a website called HealthMap Vaccine Finder, which maps out where people can get immunizations.

“With flu cases on the rise, New Yorkers should take steps to get vaccinated and protect themselves and their loved ones,” Governor Cuomo said in a news release. “I am directing the Department of Health to work with local providers to help protect our communities from this flu outbreak, and I urge all New Yorkers to visit local health centers and get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

According to the news release, as of Jan., 17,362 cases of the flu have been reported and 5,267 people have been hospitalized with influenza in the state this flu season.

Hillson said that people wanting to get the flu shot can call the heath department for more information at 607-274-6616 or visit the website here.

Featured image: “Jefferson City Medical Group could help with shortage of flu shots” by KOMUnews is licensed under CC BY 2.0