Ithaca College’s widespread flu outbreak is on track to exceed numbers from last year.
So far, 148 students have been diagnosed with influenza or an influenza-like illness since the beginning of the fall semester, as of Feb. 27. Comparatively, 101 students were diagnosed in the 2015–16 academic year, said Vivian Lorenzo, physician and medical services director in the Center for Counseling, Health and Wellness at the Health Center.
The increase follows both a regional and national pattern. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 4.8 percent of the U.S. population sought treatment for influenza-like illnesses during the second full week of February, which is 3 percent higher than the average week. During that week, 24 percent of the almost 35,000 individuals tested for either type of influenza tested positively.
Lorenzo stated in an email that this is the typical time of year for the flu to peak nationally and that New York is seeing a surge in reported cases statewide — a difference from last year, when the flu was not as active. Approximately 60 students with influenza-like illnesses were seen between Feb. 20 and Feb. 22, Lorenzo said. During the same week last year, she said, the Health Center saw eight students.
“We have been swamped here caring for students,” Lorenzo said.
The New York State Department of Health has categorized the activity level of influenza in New York state as geographically widespread for nine consecutive weeks as of Feb. 18. A weekly report for New York, similar to the one published by the CDC, states that all but three counties reported having the highest level of viral activity with greater than or equal to 10 lab-confirmed cases of influenza per 100,000 people during the week ending Feb. 18. Central New York, in particular, has been hit hard, reporting close to 80 cases per 100,000 people that week.
Lorenzo said the college physicians do not always test for the flu, as they sometimes diagnose patients just on their symptoms. Therefore, there may be more cases than the college has tested positive.
David Evelyn, vice president for medical affairs at Cayuga Medical Center, said it is unusual for central New York to be so disproportionately affected by the flu. Typically, influenza spreads regionally from more populous areas, specifically New York City, to smaller populations.
“It is really just spectacular almost, the difference between us and the rest of the state,” Evelyn said. “Not only is central New York sky-high in terms of cases based on population; the statistics show that central New York is close to twice as high as the rest of the state.”
As to why, exactly, the region is facing such a spike, there is no consensus. Lorenzo said flu season depends on the severity of the circulating strain and how similar the strain is to flu viruses that have circulated recently. Evelyn said it is difficult to pin the rise on one particular aspect when there is a large number of factors that influence a flu virus. He said the current situation is comparable to an H1N1 outbreak in 2009 that hit central New York hard compared to the rest of the state.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why,” Evelyn said. “Some people were postulating that college students were bringing it with them [from their hometowns] to the area, but there is no real way to prove that.”
Evelyn said every March, the Centers for Disease Control predicts the strain of flu that will circulate for the next year, and a vaccine is developed to be distributed in the following September. He said sometimes the CDC’s prediction is not accurate, but this year it seems like the vaccine matches the strain going around.
“The preliminary information that I had was that there was a good match with the strains that are circulating, but we don’t really know because even within the match there can be some very subtle variations that can make a huge difference,” Evelyn said.
Lorenzo said the best way to prevent getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible. So far this season, the college has administered flu vaccines to over 1,120 students and 500 faculty and staff members, she said. Vaccines are available on campus at the Health Center or at many local pharmacies.
Evelyn said he agreed and that besides the vaccine, the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is through maintaining proper hygiene and common sense. Lorenzo’s advice is to wash hands frequently, get plenty of sleep and avoid close contact with individuals who are ill.
“The flu is very, very contagious,” Evelyn said. “If someone coughs into their hand and is starting to get the flu and then shakes your hand or breaks off a piece of their bagel for you, then you got it.”