Both Janesville hospitals have reported sharp increases in influenza cases since the start of the new year, and officials say that influx is just the beginning.
Mercyhealth has seen more than 170 patients test positive for the viral respiratory infection since September at its hospitals and clinics in Rock County, Mercyhealth spokeswoman Trish Reed wrote in an email to The Gazette last week.
Of those cases, 60 were diagnosed in December and 27 were diagnosed in the first seven days of 2020, which shows the number of cases is growing quickly, said Mark Goelzer, medical director for Mercyhealth.
SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville started seeing cases over the last couple of weeks and declared that its flu season began Friday, Jan. 3, said Brenda Klahn, an infection preventionist.
The state Department of Health Services described southern Wisconsin as having “high levels” of flu activity in last week’s respiratory report.
Flu cases are widespread nationwide, but St. Mary’s staff started paying closer attention when the flu began popping up in northern Illinois, Klahn said.
Influenza affects the respiratory system and can lead to pneumonia, which can be deadly. Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, stuffy nose, body aches, headache and fatigue.
The flu does not cause vomiting, nausea or diarrhea, Klahn said.
Illinois, Iowa and Indiana have reported high levels of flu activity, and Minnesota has reported moderate levels, state officials said.
Klahn and Goelzer believe the number of flu cases will continue to rise before dropping off.
Goelzer predicts Mercyhealth will see double the number of cases in January compared to December. The number of people who have the flu is at least double the number who test positive in health care settings because many people have minor cases or do not see a doctor for testing, he said.
St. Mary’s typically starts seeing cases increase in February, which means the season is starting earlier, Klahn said.
Goelzer said Mercyhealth starts seeing flu cases in late October.
Health care officials take the flu seriously because it can be fatal, especially for young children, elderly patients or people with medical conditions, Klahn said.
Nationwide, 27 children have died from flu complications this season, Klahn said.
Wisconsin has reported 11 flu-related deaths and 798 pneumonia-related deaths so far this season, according to last week’s respiratory report.
Flu vaccines are the best way to prevent the flu, and they are still available, Klahn said.
Each year, the World Health Organization selects certain viruses to include in flu vaccines, based on which ones are circulating at the time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health care officials will not know whether this year’s vaccine was a good match until later in the season, Goelzer said.
Klahn and Goelzer recommend people contact their primary care providers if they experience severe flu symptoms.
To avoid spreading the flu, wash your hands frequently and stay away from other people when you’re sick, Goelzer advises.
Flu shots are available through Mercyhealth and St. Mary’s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a searchable map on its website to help people find nearby vaccine clinics.