WESTERLY — It’s still not too late to get a flu shot.
That’s the message from Dr. Oliver Mayorga, chief medical officer at Westerly Hospital, where 43 cases of influenza have been seen since October. Although not perfect, the vaccine reduces the chances of contracting the flu by 10 to 30 percent, Mayorga said.
The illness is hitting the state hard. The state Department of Health reported 203 flu-related hospital admissions as of the middle of this week and 94 of those have been in this week alone. Seven deaths have been attributed to the illness.
In Connecticut as of the week ending Jan. 6, there have been 1,015 positive cases of the flu, with 456 hospitalizations since late August. Twenty-one deaths have been attributed to the flu so far this season in Connecticut including 15 flu-related deaths in individuals 65 years old and older.
Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, participated in a national flu update call convened by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials on Wednesday. The session was geared toward “getting a better handle on managing emergency departments and hospital beds” during the flu season, which often extends into May, Mayorga said.
While Westerly Hospital has been keeping busy providing care to those with the flu, Mayorga said the patient volume has been manageable and the facility can continue to accept the sickest patients who require in-patient care.
The 2017-18 flu is the H3N2 strain, which is considered the most dangerous of the four flu strains. It is particularly dangerous for high-risk populations, including children under 5 and adults over 65 or those suffering from cardiovascular or pulmonary conditions. Those being treated for diabetes and cancer are also at increased risk, Mayorga said.
Frequent handwashing and limiting contact with those who are sick are ways to avoid the illness. Coughing into the elbow rather the hand is also advised, Mayorga said. Those who are symptomatic may want to consider seeing a doctor to determine if a prescription for Tamiflu, a flu fighting drug, is appropriate. The drug has been proven to reduce mortality for those in high risk groups if it is taken within 48 hours of symptom onset. Mayorga cautioned that Tamiflu is not necessarily recommended for people who are otherwise healthy due to the chance of side effects related to the medication.
The current flu season, which is rated “moderately severe” nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comes 100 years after the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which caused the death of 2,306 Rhode Island residents and coincided with the formation of what is known as the Westerly Ambulance (Sanitary) Corps.
According to Westerly historian Thomas A. O’Connell’s book, “In and About Westerly,” the town started to understand the seriousness of the 1918 pandemic when a young Naval recruit from Westerly died of the flu while in training at Newport Naval Station in late September of that year. When 400 Westerly pubic school students were home ill with the flu the superintendent of schools ordered all of the town’s schools closed for an indefinite period, according to O’Connell’s book. Churches and theaters also closed their doors to public gatherings.
The Sanitary Corps established a headquarters on High Street and sent patrols into the homes of those in need of aid. The corps also set up a 29-bed emergency hospital at the Beach Street School. Westerly Hospital did not exist at the time. Michael Brancato, the ambulance corps’ current assistant chief, said the corps oldest and longest-serving members say the corps response to the pandemic was one of its greatest challenges, second only to the Hurricane of 1938.