TWIN FALLS — Brent Evans got a flu shot in late October just about as soon as the vaccine was available.
After his experiences battling influenza this summer — outside of the typical flu season — he wasn’t going to take his chances. With the exception of having pneumonia as a child, it was one of the worst illnesses he’d experienced.
It’s peak flu season now. Across Idaho, public health officials are worried about an uptick in influenza-related deaths so far this season — the most in seven years. Here in the Magic Valley, health officials say it’s a fairly typical year, but they’re urging community members to get a flu shot if they haven’t already.
“There’s a pretty good chance that our flu season will last far into February,” said Dr. Scott Holliday, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center. “It’s worth your while to get the vaccine.”
In total, 23 flu-related deaths have been reported across Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Evans’ illness began in late July and lasted a couple of weeks, into early August. He went to a doctor after three days of misery and was prescribed medication for an aggressive cough. He alternated between fever and chills, spiking at 103 and shook uncontrollably, sweating, losing sleep and barely eating. In total, he missed five days of work.
“Flu is widespread in Idaho and may be especially severe this season,” state influenza surveillance coordinator Randi Pedersen said in a statement Dec. 26. “Unfortunately, this flu season is far from over.”
Of the flu-related deaths, all but one were among those older than 50. A dozen were in northern Idaho and one was here in south-central Idaho in December. Last flu season, 72 deaths were reported in Idaho. That was up significantly from an average of 23 yearly since 2009. So far this season, numbers are on track to outpace last year.
Locally, Tanis Maxwell — an epidemiologist for South Central Public Health District — said she thinks flu activity is similar to previous years. But “it has started a little bit earlier than it normally would have.”
Holliday said he also thinks flu season in the Magic Valley hasn’t been more severe this year. But there are still quite a few cases. Of the 20-25 patients Holliday sees during an average ER shift, about 10 either have a confirmed case of the flu or a viral illness that’s likely the flu.
Evans, who works for the St. Luke’s Magic Valley Health Foundation, takes prospective physicians on tours of the hospital. Within the last month, he has had to limit the areas he takes them due to flu season because he doesn’t know whether they’ve received a flu shot.
“With the severity of this flu going on, it would be a hazard, really,” he said.
Flu symptoms can vary quite a bit from person-to-person. They can include a sudden fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache and fatigue. Symptoms are generally more severe than the common cold.
“Some people will make it through the flu and it feels more like a cold to them,” Holliday said. “Some people feel like they’ve been run over by a train.”
It may take patients three weeks to fully recover, he said.
There are multiple strains of the flu, and some years, it’s possible to have two peaks — each for a different strain of the flu. In the Magic Valley, influenza A seems to be the most prevalent. But nationwide, the B strain is a little more prevalent this season, Holliday said.
“When they make up the vaccine, they try to predict which one it’s going to be,” he said. “It’s difficult to say what’s actually working through our population — whether A or B.”
A Gooding resident is battling complications from influenza B, as well as a severe infection. He spent a week at a local hospital before being flown to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. A friend created an online GoFundMe page to raise money to help with medical expenses.
In northern Idaho, Kellogg School District campuses were closed for three days and activities were canceled last week due to a flu outbreak. The school district’s custodial staff planned to deep clean the school buildings. Spokeswoman Eva Craner said she hasn’t heard of any Twin Falls schools being affected by higher than average flu-related absences.