Medical assistant Anissa Millette prepares to give a flu vaccine at Portland Community Health Center Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013.
The flu "is reaching epidemic proportions" in Maine, the state's top health official said Thursday.
Dr. Sheila Pinette, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state's hospitals "are maxing out in terms of the capacity to handle people coming into the emergency rooms."
Pinette said this year's version of the virus is the worst in the last decade, with the possible exception of three years ago, when a strain of the flu created a global pandemic.
The spread of that virus was exacerbated by a shortage of vaccine during the early part of the winter of 2009-10.
Pinette said there is no shortage of vaccine this year, and the vaccine in use now was formulated correctly to combat the three strains of the flu that are circulating around the country.
She said supplies of anti-viral medicines such as Tamiflu also are sufficient.
None of that appears to be seriously reducing the spread of the flu.
"Admissions are way up," as are emergency room visits, said Josh Frances, director of emergency management at Maine Medical Center in Portland. "This is the most severe influenza season that we've seen in probably the last decade, including the H1N1 (swine flu virus) of 2009 to 2010." Other hospitals, including Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford and Goodall Hospital in Sanford, say admissions and emergency room visits are up sharply over the same period last year -- 35 to 40 percent at Southern Maine Medical Center.
What's happening in Maine hospitals is happening across the country. Boston declared a public health emergency Thursday in the wake of 18 flu-related deaths, and hospitals nationwide are reporting a spike in visits.
A case of the flu means an admission to the hospital if the symptoms -- fever, muscle aches, coughing, lethargy -- are severe. People with other health issues, such as heart disease, face an even greater threat if they catch the flu.
A 6-year-old Benton girl became Maine's first pediatric flu death since 2010. She had not been vaccinated before she died in December.
Pinette said that because three strains are circulating, some people could get the flu multiple times this year.
Elderly people in nursing homes are particularly vulnerable, she said, because they could be hospitalized with one strain, released to the nursing home to recover and then catch another strain.
Mike Albaum, chief medical officer for Southern Maine Medical Center, said it's not clear why this year's flu season is worse than others.
"It's hard to know what drives the flu," he said, but the virus is constantly mutating to find a way around a potential host's defenses.
Albaum said flu season hit Maine earlier than usual. It began showing up in strength in November and December; prime flu season usually doesn't start until February.
Maine's first case was confirmed in late October.
He said people are getting vaccinated. Immunizations at the hospital in Biddeford are running about the same as in previous years. With vaccine more widely available -- most pharmacies offer shots -- it's harder to track vaccination rates, Albaum said.
Pinette said it's important for people who get the flu to stay at home and cover their coughs, to try to prevent the spread of the disease.
She and others said that getting a vaccination also protects others -- if you don't get the flu, you won't spread it.
If this year's flu outbreak mirrors those of past years, Pinette said, there are likely two to three months to go before it runs its course.
"We've already exceeded the entire last year and the year before," she said. "We don't know how bad it's going to get, but we do know it's a virulent virus."
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Medical assistant Anissa Millette talks with Leila Hassan of Portland before giving her a flu shot at Portland Community Health Center Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013.
Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: A sign at Portland Community Health Center Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013.