The state Health Department reported the flu in Virginia at widespread status on Thursday for the eighth week straight. However, local health officials believe the season has peaked and the numbers are starting to drop.
"It's dropping off markedly," said Dr. Bill Berg of the Hampton Health District. "About three weeks ago, 8 percent of emergency room visits in Hampton Roads were for flu-like illnesses. That's down to 4 percent now." The state tracks the upper respiratory virus under the umbrella of "flu-like illnesses."
Compared to last year, which saw three weeks of similarly "widespread" flu — the highest rating — confined to March, this year's season started significantly earlier and has extended much longer.
It started in the southwest of the state, which typically has more severe outbreaks, and spread north and east, according to Berg. It hit Hampton Roads a couple of weeks later than other regions, but appears to have peaked at the same time. "Our area is like most of the rest of the state. The drop is being seen throughout," he said.
According to the Trust for America's Health, every year, around 20 percent of Americans get the flu. Between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans die from flu-related illnesses and an average of 226,000 are hospitalized. It counts the associated economic losses at more than $10 billion in direct medical expenses and more than $16 billion in lost earnings nationwide.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over 6 months receive the vaccine. The Virginia Health Department web site emphasizes that "the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu — the viruses in it are weakened or inactivated." The only side effects are possible soreness at the injection site; those receiving the nasal spray sometimes complain of a runny nose or headache in the days after.