Cases of flu remain high in Maryland

Lisa Starr picked up the phone, dialed a number and repeated the question she'd asked and already been told no to several times that day.

The U.N.I. Urgent Care Center in Westminster's practice manager called all the clinic's flu shot vendors asking if they had more vaccinations available.

None did.

"You can't find them," she said. "They're just not there."

Flu vaccines are flying out the doors of pharmacies in Carroll County and nationwide as the disease remains elevated in most of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maryland has a high intensity of flu-related symptoms for the second straight week in widespread geographic areas, according to a Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report released Friday about the week ending Jan. 19.

The flu season arrived about a month earlier than the norm, according to the CDC, and it's a stark contrast from last year, when the flu season was relatively mild.

And the state and Carroll County appear to be on par with this national trend, according to Dr. David Blythe, DHMH's epidemiologist.

Carroll Hospital Center has already seen more patients admitted overnight for the flu in total than in the past several years, according to Libby Fuss, the hospital's infection prevention/associate health manager.

The hospital admits patients who have a severe case of the disease or have other chronic illnesses, and last season, only one person stayed overnight.

As of Thursday afternoon, 31 individuals have been admitted for flu-related symptoms since the first case was reported in Maryland in late October, according to Fuss.

About every third patient who walks through the door of U.N.I. Urgent Care Center in Westminster has flu-related symptoms. This translates to about 15 patients a day who are testing positive for the flu. And that's parents, teachers, students, babies, children and whole families, said Dr. Jocelyn Apollon, the clinic's medical director.

"At the end of December, we started seeing more of it," she said, "and in January, it just took off - just absolutely took off."

People are continually coming in with a question: "Is it too late to get my flu shot?" Apollon said they ask.

No, she'll reply. At least, it's not too late for the vaccine to be effective. But where to find one is a different story.

Several pharmacies have run out of or have a limited supply. As of Friday morning, U.N.I. Urgent Care Center had just 10 vaccinations left. Walgreens in Eldersburg had 70. Rite Aid in Westminster received a shipment of 100 on Wednesday.

About 133.5 million doses have been distributed nationwide as of this week, according Curtis Allen, CDC spokesman. That's about 92 percent of the total flu vaccine made this year.

"Most people each year would be vaccinated by this time that are going to be vaccinated," he said, "so it's not unusual, for at this time of the year, for a lot of providers to use most of the vaccines they have on hand."

That's because every February the pharmaceutical companies decide what strains will go into the vaccine and start making it. Then, come August, it's distributed to pharmacies, and vaccination season officially begins.

Since the vaccine's make-up changes every year and since any end-of-the-season extras have to be destroyed, manufacturers do not have an endless supply of shots, Allen said.

But individuals searching for the vaccine should be able to find some in their area, Allen said.

He suggested calling local pharmacies, asking doctors and visiting http://flushot.healthmap.org, which shows all pharmacies that administer flu shots broken down by ZIP code.

If an individual has a fever, sore throat, a cough or a runny nose, they should go to the doctor immediately to see if they have the flu, Allen said, as the medicine prescribed, such as Tamiflu, works best if taken within 48 hours.

It's best to stay home if a person comes down with the flu to avoid spreading the disease, Fuss said.

"We try to teach people you should sneeze into your sleeve, cough into your elbow so germs don't spread," Fuss said, "and wash your hands."

While more are experiencing such symptoms of the flu than last year, it's still too early to tell how severe the season will be. It's a game of wait and see, Allen said.

"You have to look at it retrospectively," he said. "It's really hard to determine what the season is like when you're in the middle of the season."