Nearly one in three people across Maryland tested for influenza during this flu season have been positive for the highly contagious and difficult-to-predict illness, and health officials are seeing similar numbers in Harford County.
With that in mind, the operators of the county's two major hospitals have restricted patient visitations to adults age 18 and older.
Dr. Faheem Younus, chief of infectious diseases for University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, said 32 percent of people tested across the state came back positive as of last week, and 27 percent of people tested at Upper Chesapeake were positive.
The percentage of positive cases ranges from about 15 to 30 each season, and this season "is at the high end of it," Younus said.
"Flu is like the stock market," he said. "You really don't know what direction it's going to go."
With the high number of influenza cases, Upper Chesapeake has implemented what officials describe as a "modified visitor policy" to protect patients from catching a virus that can cause severe illness and death.
Upper Chesapeake Health operates Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace.
According to the visitor policy, no one younger than 18 years old, expect those who are patients or parents of patients – such as a teenager with a child – can visit a patient in the hospitals' inpatient facilities.
Also, only two adults at a time can visit a patient. Anyone visiting the hospitals for outpatient or physician care should not bring a child under age 18, unless that care is for that child, according to the policy.
Anyone who has flu symptoms such as a fever, cough, runny nose or a sore throat cannot visit a patient.
Younus said the visitor policy is a standard prevention measure implemented at the hospitals during flu season.
"We take a range of precautions to make sure that our patients are safe," he said.
The doctor said the best way for people to protect themselves from the flu is to get a flu vaccine. He noted that the vaccine "still remains our most lethal weapon against the flu," even if the vaccine is not as effective this year than it has been in past years.
"Get that little ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure, and get that vaccine shot," Younus said.
The vaccine is designed each year with specific strains of the flu as its components, based on projections of what strains will be affecting people during the season.
Younus said that process begins during the summer, and the vaccine is administered beginning in the fall. Some years, there will be a "tight match of the vaccine with the strain of flu for that year," and other years the match will not be as tight.
"At the end of the day, there is still an element of guess," he said.
Younus said that, even if a vaccine is not an exact match for a particular patient's strain of the flu, "it's very likely that it will be a milder illness" if the patient gets vaccinated.
Younus said medication taken within two days of the onset of flu symptoms helps, along with staying home from work, washing hands and covering a cough.
William Wiseman, public information officer for the Harford County Health Department, also stressed that the vaccine is "safe and effective."
"That vaccine remains in plentiful supply throughout the county through family care physicians andthrough pharmacy chains," Wiseman stated in an email.
The vaccine can be administered through a hypodermic needle or the FluMist nasal spray. Molly Mraz, a communications specialist with the health department, said 9,744 Harford County Public Schools children in pre-K through fifth grade, or 50.7 percent of elementary school students, received doses of FluMist in September, October and December 2014.
Mraz also recommended calling a primary care physician if people suspect they have the flu.
"Most importantly, get a flu shot and wash your hands, and stay home when you're sick," she said.
Although much of the nation's attention was focused on the Ebola virus epidemic that ravaged West Africa in 2014, and affected several people in the United States, Younus stressed that influenza can be more contagious, since a person who has influenza can be contagious one or two days before showing symptoms, while a person carrying Ebola is not contagious until he or she shows symptoms.
Ebola also can only be transferred through direct contact with body fluids, while the flu can spread through coughs, sneezes and unsanitized hands.
Dr. Hunter Spotts, medical director at the Patient First urgent care clinic in Perry Hall, said this flu season is worse than last year's.
"Two years ago was pretty bad, as well," Spotts said.
He said flu symptoms include a high fever accompanied by muscle and body aches, along with a runny nose, cough, sore throat, and some times vomiting and diarrhea.
Spotts said effective treatments for the flu include the prescription medication Tamiflu, as well as over-the-counter treatments such as aspirin and ibuprofen, decongestants, plus "drinking lots of fluids and resting, and let it run its course."