Last week saw a dramatic rise in the number of new flu cases and hospitalizations in Maine, adding to what already has been one of the worst years in nearly a decade.

There were 876 new cases of influenza, a 63 percent increase over the previous week, as well as 120 new hospitalizations and five deaths attributed to the flu.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the new data Wednesday, bringing the totals for this season to 3,047 cases, 667 hospitalizations and 34 deaths. Flu season begins in October and runs through May.

Sara Robinson, an epidemiologist with the Maine CDC, said experts had hoped flu cases were peaking late last month, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“It’s a little bit hard to tell because every flu season is different,” she said. “We know this year’s flu season started a little earlier. We’d certainly like to see that curve turn around, but it’s not happening yet.”

Robinson said this season is one of the worst in recent memory but has not reached the pandemic levels that Maine and other states saw in 2009.

“I think the biggest message is: It’s not too late to get vaccinated. Even if it’s not a perfect match, it’s still going to protect you,” she said. “The other thing is: If you’re sick, stay home. You’re not doing anyone any favors by going into work.”

YORK COUNTY AMONG HARDEST HIT

The number of new cases documented last week represented a sharp increase over the previous two weeks, when 538 and 531 cases were reported, respectively.

This season’s numbers also are much higher than last year’s at this time.

As of Feb. 4 last year, there were just 669 cases of the flu and 109 hospitalizations. This year, there are 740 cases and 114 hospitalizations in York County alone.

For the entire 2016-17 flu season, there were 5,830 reported cases, 1,151 hospitalizations and 71 deaths in Maine.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, former head of the Maine CDC and now vice president of clinical affairs at the University of New England, said this season has indeed been a bad one.

“The most predictable thing about influenza is its unpredictability,” she said.

Mills also encouraged people to get flu shots if they haven’t already. She also said Tamiflu, available through a prescription, can cut down on the length and severity of the flu.

Mills said it’s hard to tell whether Maine has reached peak flu season or whether cases are still on the rise. She said other states have been hit harder over the past few weeks, so maybe Maine is just now catching up.

Comparing this year’s flu to past years is difficult, too, she said, because it has only been for the past 10 years or so that the state has been keeping detailed and up-to-date data.

The flu strain circulating in Maine this year is still predominantly A H3N2, one of the most virulent strains, especially for seniors. The virus has taken a toll on nursing homes and assisted living facilities and recently has led to overcrowded emergency rooms.

CONFIRMED CASES IN U.S.: 83,000

Of the 21 documented flu outbreaks last week, 19 were in long-term care facilities. An outbreak occurs when three or more cases are reported in a single location.

Last month, churches across Maine took the unusual step of suspending traditional rituals, such as sharing communion wine and shaking hands, to try to prevent the spread of flu.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported widespread flu cases in every state except Hawaii. Nationally, there were about 83,000 confirmed cases of influenza through last week.

The actual number of flu cases is much higher than those reported because many people recover at home and are never tested. Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and coughing.

Health experts also have said that the number of deaths related to the flu may have been underrepresented because many individuals die of secondary infections that are attributable to influenza. However, influenza is not always listed as a cause on a death certificate.

Even though it’s now deep into flu season, people can still get a flu shot, although shots are not foolproof. According to the federal CDC, the vaccine was 48 percent effective in 2016-17 and 59 percent effective in 2015-16.

However, health professionals say those who get the flu despite receiving a flu shot typically have milder symptoms.

Frequent hand-washing and avoiding contact with those who may have the flu are recommended.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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