RALEIGH, N.C. – The current flu season hit a spike with 11 deaths in the state last week, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday.
That was almost double the previous week, when there were six. The total is at least 44 since the flu season began in the state on Oct. 1.
As has been the standard practice, DHHS officials have not disclosed the counties in which victims lived; however, county health officials typically are informing the public when a flu-related death has occurred in a county.
It is the second consecutive flu season in which at least 11 people died from flu-related complications during the third week of January. Those 11 deaths represented the peak of the 2012-13 season, which had 59 deaths altogether.
Among last week’s deaths was a middle-age Forsyth County woman who died Jan. 23, the first local fatality, according to the Forsyth County Health Department. As with other flu-related deaths, the woman was not identified for privacy reasons.
There have been at least nine deaths related to the flu in the Triad, including six in Guilford County and one each in Alamance and Randolph counties.
“Reported flu cases and flu deaths have occurred in all regions of the state, so it is very widespread,” DHHS spokeswoman Kirsti Clifford said.
The flu season typically runs from Oct. 1 through March 31. The HIN1 strain, or swine flu, represented 130 of the 135 cases verified by the State Laboratory of Public Health through Saturday.
With the latest totals, one victim was younger than age 5, one was ages 5 to 17, 19 were ages 25 to 49, 14 were 50 to 64 and nine were 65 or older. Clifford has said at least two of the victims had received a flu shot.
By comparison with the 2012-13 season, DHHS reported 36 deaths from those 65 and older, 16 deaths among those ages 50 to 64, six among ages 25 to 49, and one death among those 18 to 24.
The peak of the flu season has varied in recent years.
For the 2010-11 season, most of the 36 deaths occurred during the first three weeks of February.
In the 2009-10 season, which had the most victims — 91 — in recent memory, most deaths occurred in October through December.
Last week’s spike in deaths could signal that the flu season has hit a plateau, said Dr. James Lederer, an infectious disease physician and a vice president of clinical improvement for Novant Health Inc.
Lederer said a better measurement of the scope of any flu season is overall cases, and not weekly measurements of death totals.
“Some high totals of deaths in a week can be caused by a lag in reporting time,” Lederer said. “We’re at the typical peak time for the flu, and there was a ramping up of cases and deaths before last week.”
Lederer said physicians have gotten better in early detection of the flu in people who have health complications that can make them vulnerable.
State health officials say that most of the victims had some kind of health condition that made them more vulnerable to the flu, which is typical in flu-related deaths. Those conditions can include heart disease, asthma or a respiratory illness, diabetes, immune-system problems, obesity and pregnancy.
Children under age 2 also are considered at a higher risk for the flu. Lederer said that about 50 percent of the population typically gets a flu shot each season.
Marlon Hunter, Forsyth’s health director, said the department is providing free flu shots from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday; from 8:30 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays; and from 8:30-11:45 a.m. on Fridays.
Forsyth and Wake Forest Baptist medical center officials say they are evaluating influenza rates on a daily basis in determining whether to begin visitor restrictions.
Triad hospitals that have flu-related visitor restrictions include High Point Regional Hospital; Cone Health’s hospitals in Burlington (Alamance Regional), Greensboro (Moses Cone and Wesley Long) and Reidsville (Annie Penn); and Northern Hospital of Surry County in Mount Airy.
All visitor restrictions request that no routine hospital visits be made by anyone age 18 and younger, and the hospitals are asking adults to voluntarily restrict their visitation if they are experiencing such symptoms as a runny nose, sore throat, fever and cough.
Visitor restriction exceptions tend to be made for serious emergencies or end-of-life situations. The policy also tends not to apply to patients under 18 who have a scheduled procedure or need emergency care or hospitalization.