By Matthew Robare
Flu season has hit eastern Massachusetts very hard. On January 9 Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston declared a state of emergency for the city since at that point there had been 700 confirmed cases when 2012 had only 70, according to WBUR.
Saugus, naturally, has not been immune.
“There has been an increase in the influenza, just as the state had mentioned,” said Saugus Public Health Director Frank Giacalone, adding, “Our numbers are consistent with what’s been going on statewide.”
Joan Aeshilmann, the nurse at Saugus High School, said that cases had stabilized over the course of the month. “I would say that at the beginning of the month many students were feeling ill and were sent home with fever and other symptoms and since then it’s stabilized,” she explained.
Despite the number of people affected, the current flu season doesn’t seem especially severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—no new flu virus has appeared and become widespread, and the current vaccines decrease the need to see a doctor by 60%.
Giacalone said that it was hard to say why this season has seen so many more cases compared to last year. “One reason may be, and what I feel, is that a lot of people are not getting the flu shot, which is the most obvious one,” Giacalone opined. “But, it’s hard to determine, because this year our numbers have gone down in the number of vaccines we’ve given out, and for the past two years they’ve progressively been less and less… But that coincides with the same time that the pharmacies started giving out vaccines, so the correlation of our numbers going down and the pharmacies giving out the vaccine—and then this year they opened it up to accept almost all insurance coverage, so again our numbers went down. But you can also [make] a correlation that less and less people are getting interested in having the vaccine.”
Aeshilmann said they were trying to be proactive at the high school. “We took a proactive approach, especially with our staff, making sure that everyone got the flu shot,” she explained. She added, “We’ve just been reminding everyone about hand washing. It’s just an absolute reminder about cleanliness and covering your hands when you cough and sneeze.”
According to the CDC, children and the elderly are at highest risk for complications from the flu, such as pneumonia. About half of all hospitalizations for flu involve people over 65, and during the most recent week for which data is available—January 6–12—nine children died of the flu, while 29 influenza-related deaths of children have occurred through the whole season.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there as well,” Giacalone alleged. He explained: “People proclaiming, ‘Well, last year I got the flu shot and I got the flu a week later.’ And I think the state did a good job at explaining that the vaccine does take time for the immunity to develop in the body, which is about two weeks. Also, the vaccine, although it covers most flu viruses, it does not cover all and (to be truthful) I got the vaccine myself and for the past six-seven years that I’ve been getting it I never got sick, and this year I did get a slight case of the flu. It’s a slim chance you might get sick or get the flu. The majority of people out there, if they do get the vaccine, will not get sick.”
“We’re doing above average for the year,” said Kirstin Fiumara, a pharmacy technician at Walgreens, on the number of flu vaccines they’ve given out compared to previous years. Pharmacists at Target and CVS declined to give out any information.
Giacalone said that the Public Health Department still has vaccine available. “The protocol for this is that if you want to obtain a vaccine free of charge contact the nurse at 781-233-5504 and leave a message. She’s usually only here on Thursdays.”
The flu shots are by appointment, but he said that they need an insurance card so the town can get reimbursed for the cost of the vaccines.