By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
COLUMBUS (AP) – Four people, all children, have died from the flu this season as hospitalizations for the illness continue to rise, the Ohio Health Department said Friday.
Data released Friday shows 1,598 flu-related hospitalizations Dec. 28 through Jan. 4. That’s a 55 percent jump from a week earlier and brings the season total to 4,487.
It’s also a huge increase from the same week a year ago, when the department reported just 833 flu hospitalizations. The figures were a little higher in 2012, with 1,922 hospitalizations, but still far below the current figures.
Ohio’s east-central region had the most hospitalizations last week with 461, followed by 289 in the southwest and 279 in the northeast.
Cuyahoga County, the state’s most populous county, accounts for more than one in five of every flu hospitalization this season with 1,028, followed by Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, with 427, and Franklin County, home to Columbus, with 395.
The state reported two new flu deaths: a 4-month-old boy in Cincinnati – the date wasn’t yet available – and a 2-year-old girl in Allen County on Dec. 27. Those followed the death of a 16-year-old boy in Licking County last month and a 15-year-old girl in Ironton in southern Ohio in November.
An infectious disease doctor in Allen County has called the outbreak the worst in 24 years, Rebecca Dershem, Allen County Public Health Director of Nursing, said Friday. The county had 92 hospitalizations last month compared to seven in November.
“Hospital beds are full, people are sick, emergency rooms are seeing high volumes of patients, it’s very cumbersome this year,” Dershem said.
She stressed the importance of staying home if people feel sick, covering their mouths when coughing and above all else, washing hands frequently with soap and water.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said this year’s vaccine may not protect against the dominant flu strain as well.
The state says getting the vaccine is still important, especially for the chronically ill, the elderly and pregnant women.
About 45 percent of Ohioans got flu vaccinations last flu season, not enough to create what health officials refer to as “herd immunity,” or enough vaccinations to protect though who haven’t been vaccinated, Dershem said. That percentage would be around 80 percent, she said.
Several hospitals around Ohio have asked people with flu symptoms to stay away to avoid sickening patients and staff.