The flu is tightening its grip on Maine, with nearly 1,000 new cases reported for the week ending Feb. 8, a 24 percent increase in the total number of cases from the previous week. The flu is hitting schools and nursing homes with outbreaks, causing at least two schools to close for a day.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 956 new flu cases from Feb. 1-8, bringing the total confirmed influenza cases to 4,961 for the season, which runs from October through May. Seventeen people have died and 277 have been hospitalized.

“That’s a lot for one week,” Dr. Dora Anne Mills, senior vice president of community health for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said in an interview Tuesday. Mills, an infectious disease expert and former Maine CDC director, said because the influenza season can have many peaks and valleys it’s impossible to predict how it will end. In the 2018-19 season, flu cases tracked lower than this year through early February, at 3,056 cases, but accelerated in March, and ended the season with 10,313 cases.

“We do know every influenza season is a rough season,” Mills said. “It’s very rare to have a mild season. It’s a bad disease.”

Flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle and body aches, and fatigue.

In 2017-18, there were 4,147 cases through Feb. 10, and 9,018 for the entire season, but in the previous year, 2016-17, 936 flu cases were recorded by the second week of February, and 5,830 by the end of the season. Testing was much less widespread in that season and previous years, so it’s difficult to compare these years to more recent ones.

Flu cases have not yet peaked this flu season, as every week since November there have been more statewide cases compared to the previous week. During the previous three weeks, the Maine CDC reported 866 new cases in the week ending on Feb. 1, 685 new cases for the week ending on Jan. 25 and 585 new flu cases the week of Jan. 18.

York County has been particularly hard hit, with 1,472 confirmed flu cases this season, compared to 814 in the more-populated Cumberland County.

“The best way for Maine people to protect themselves from influenza is still personal prevention: wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, stay home if you are sick and get vaccinated. We encourage Mainers to proactively protect their health through these measures,” said Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman. “Flu shots are still available. Get one if you have not already done so.”

The strains of flu circulating in Maine are split almost evenly between influenza A (H1N1) and influenza B (Victoria), the Maine CDC said.

Mills said influenza B (Victoria) is typically a milder strain that is more likely to hit younger people, which explains why the 5-24 age range has been the hardest hit, with 2,046 of the 4,961 cases. Seniors age 65 and over have been mostly spared the flu this season, with only 372 cases, the age group with the fewest number of cases.

“This is hitting a lot of younger people harder this year,” Mills said. “Younger people tend to get sick, but are less likely to be hospitalized or die from the flu.”

Scott Lewia, Wells High School wrestling coach in heavily affected York County, said his team was hit hard by the flu a few weeks ago, with nearly half the team sick. The team is now mostly recovered.

“This flu, I’ve never seen anything like this (this year),” Lewia said. “I’ve probably had up to 10 kids out one time or another, up to three to four days.”

Mills said that with February school vacation break starting next week, case numbers might decline later in February or March.

Most of the nation is stricken with widespread flu cases, and the U.S. CDC is estimating 22 million flu illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. The U.S. CDC uses statistical modeling to estimate national flu cases, as the number of actual flu cases is much higher than confirmed positive tests, because many people recover at home and are not tested.

Last week, two schools in Maine closed for one day due to numerous student absences from flu-like symptoms, including Edna Libby Elementary School in Standish and Sanford Christian Academy. The Maine CDC reported 16 flu outbreaks at K-12 schools this season.

The flu symptoms are similar to those exhibited by people who have the coronavirus, which has stricken over 40,000 people worldwide, killed more than 1,000 and put some 60 million people under virtual quarantine in China. The state CDC said Monday that it had for the first time tested a person in Maine for the coronavirus. Results of the test are expected in one to five days.

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

 

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