Community masking helps to contain the spread of the virus, as vaccines are not 100 percent effective and infected persons can transmit it as much as 24 hours before displaying any symptoms, according to Dale Gauding, a Sentara spokesman.
The area-wide mask advisory went into effect on Jan. 7 and was lifted late last week.
In a virtual mirror image of last year, the worst of the 2013-2014 flu season hit in the first few months of the year, but was abbreviated by a couple of weeks. The latest report from the Virginia Department of Health, which monitors influenza-like illness each week from October through May, puts activity at a "regional" level statewide, a step down from "widespread." The latter persisted for 11 weeks from the end of the year into early March.
"We just went down. It's a sign we're entering the tail end, but regional doesn't mean it's gone," said Laurie Forlano, deputy state epidemiologist for the VDH.
"We're still seeing a few patients with positive flu tests, although it seems to be on the decline now," Dr. Kent Willyard with Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group, TPMG, in Newport News, wrote in an email. "This season has been fairly typical, maybe a bit lighter than some. We've seen approximately 25 cases of influenza or influenza-like illness in our three-physician office so far this season. Generally, we tend to see more cases in the late winter and early spring around here, and that's remained consistent."
In the Eastern Region, which encompasses the Peninsula, activity peaked at the beginning of February and has shown a steady decline since. Of the state's five health regions, the Northern region currently has the highest incidence of flu. Those most affected continue to be the youngest — those under age 4.
The health department uses laboratory reports, outbreak reports, and data on visits to hospital emergency departments and urgent care centers for "flu-like illness" to determine the extent of activity. Flu-like illness is defined as a fever along with a cough and/or a sore throat. The vaccination rate in Virginia has hovered at just under 50 percent of those for whom it's recommended, said Forlano.
"We do a really good job with kids and older adults, but the numbers need to go up with the 18 to 49 age group," Forlano said. She noted that the latter appear to have been harder hit with the flu than usual this year, with H1N1 the predominant strain nationwide.
Salasky can be reached by phone at 757-247-4784.