Flu season bites Hudson Valley hard as counties race to immunize

Aaron Lemma gets a flu shot from Dr. Aaron Lemma gets a flu shot from Dr. Sassan Naderi at the Premier Care walk-in health clinic, which administers flu shots at various New York City locations. (Jan. 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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As the nation reels from a particularly nasty flu season, Hudson Valley health officials and residents are scrambling to contain the nagging virus.

County health officials say an increasing number of people this winter have opted for flu shots in a season that arrived before schedule and with a noticeable uptick in cases.

"There's no question that the flu has arrived earlier this year, in greater numbers, and in a more severe variety when people do contract it," said Allen Beals, Putnam County's health commissioner.

In Dutchess County, ambulances transporting patients to Poughkeepsie's Vassar Brothers Medical Center and Saint Francis Hospital and Health Centers were briefly diverted to other facilities last week as the hospitals had virtually no beds available because of a surge in flu-stricken patients, county Health Commissioner Michael Caldwell said.

Although he said there were fewer patients this week, Caldwell, who has spent 18 years leading the county's Health Department, said it's the county's most severe flu season in at least seven years.

As of Jan. 5, the state had reported 18,509 confirmed laboratory cases dating back to Oct. 27. But that number, which suggests this will be the state's worst flu season in at least three years, almost certainly underreports the total number, as many people who contract the flu don't go to the doctor, and doctors don't always report cases.

In Yonkers, mother of two Sylvia Collazo was among those who came down with a particularly nasty strain of the flu. Collazo, 31, said Thursday she'd been sick for a week and said doctors told her she could not get the flu shot once she began to feel symptoms.

"I will definitely do things differently next year," Collazo said. "I would never recommend to anybody to not get the flu shot."

COUNTIES PUSH FOR IMMUNIZATION

There's a new flu vaccine each year, based on the best guess of what viruses are going around, though even those who receive the shot remain vulnerable -- the government typically finds a 60 percent success rate among the vaccinated.

But self-described "flu junkie" Doris Bucher, an associate professor at the New York Medical College in Valhalla, whose laboratory discovered the vaccine for 2009's swine flu epidemic, said even those who get the flu following vaccination typically manage to avoid the worst effects. And this winter's vaccine -- containing H3N2, H1N1 and "type B" flu strains -- has been largely effective in protecting against the season's most common virus, she said.

Toni Helleny, 60, of Yonkers, said she has had a flu shot every year for the past 35 years, "and I've never had the flu."

Some people have their own reasons for skipping the shot.

Takayrai Couch of Yonkers is one of them. The 19-year-old, who said she had a cold but not the flu, was snuggled up in a puffy coat Thursday at CVS, where she was buying multivitamins.

"I don't want to catch the flu, but I don't think I'm going to get the shot because it's already late in the season," she said.

MONTHS LEFT TO GO

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In a season that still has months left to go -- it runs from October through May, peaking in February -- Beals' office has already immunized more than 4,000 residents, almost twice the typical number. More than 500 residents turned up at a county flu clinic Wednesday night, roughly five times the number expected, officials said.

Their caution is well-founded, experts say: In Orange County, about 75 percent of reported patients had not been vaccinated, county Health Commissioner Jean Hudson said.

She believes the public may have been lulled into a false sense of security given the relative abundance of flu vaccines from public agencies and local pharmacies. Plus, last winter was an abnormally mild flu season, which may have dampened residents' urgency about the flu heading into this fall, said Sherlita Amler, Westchester County's health commissioner.

Last year's light outbreak helped persuade Rockland County to order 1,000 fewer vaccines for the 2012-13 season. But county Director of Epidemiology Oscar Alleyne said Rockland's 5,000-vaccine stash, of which roughly 95 percent has been distributed, isn't facing a shortage as of now.

Dutchess County's Caldwell also said enough vaccines are available throughout the community, and officials are monitoring the situation in case more need to be ordered. But the onus is on the residents to get immunized.

"We can only give out as much as people will take," he said.

Aside from getting their shots, residents should wash their hands frequently, and if they feel sick, they should stay home and not pass the disease along to others.

"If you start feeling ill, go home," Hudson said.

DISTINGUISHING FLU FROM COMMON COLD

Complicating matters is the flu's ability to afflict its victims with little notice; patients who are feeling fine one day could be bedridden the next and could be infecting others in the meantime. WebMD has ways to distinguish the two maladies: fever, headaches and fatigue are among the flu's most prominent symptoms. Anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza can help flu victims if administered in the first 48 hours, but remedies such as rest, drinking water and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can provide relief as well.

But like the common cold, the flu cannot be cured once it bites its victims -- it can merely run its course.

But, said Hudson, "Prevention is always better than going for the cure."

With The Associated Press

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