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Flu cases in New Mexico have tripled this season

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Lindsey Bomke, left, director of clinical education at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, administers a flu shot to Ed Cole on Tuesday.The New Mexico Department of Health reports that New Mexico is seeing about three times the normal number of flu cases this season. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico is seeing about triple the normal number of flu cases this season, leading to crowded medical waiting rooms, fewer activities for retirees and adjustments to church services.

“We experienced through December into the current year increased levels of influenza throughout the state,” said Dr. Chad Smelser, N.M. Department of Health medical epidemiologist. “That means increased activity affecting all parts of our community from schools to the number of people being hospitalized to the number of people missing work due to influenza.”

Smelser said that so far there have been seven deaths in New Mexico, all adults, attributed to flu in the 2017-2018 season, but he expects that number to grow when new figures are released on Friday.

Flu season starts in October and can run into May. NMDOH reports that the first deaths attributed to flu in the 2016-2017 season did not occur until early February. The fact there have been seven flu deaths already this season may only mean that the flu infection got uglier faster.

Flu death totals in New Mexico the past few seasons have been 27 adults and no children in 2016-2017, 30 adults and one child in 2015-2016 and 32 adults and one child in 2014-2015.

If there is a glimmer of hope, it may be that this season’s ravenous run of flu might be slowing down, although Smelser said it’s too early to know that for sure.

“The last week of December and the first week of January (the number of cases) leveled off,” Smelser said. “But we don’t know yet if that is a true peak.”

He said that last season the peak was in late February or early March.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu is now widespread in every state except Hawaii.

Smelser could not say how many cases of the flu have been confirmed in New Mexico this year. That’s because NMDOH tracks the severity of a flu season by surveying confirmed cases at specified clinics throughout the state.

“Because we are only doing surveillance at certain clinics, it’s not an absolute number for the state,” he said. “The key is that we are seeing three times the number of cases (at those clinics) than we would normally expect, which means there is a lot of flu activity in the state.”

He said the flu vaccine is still the best way for people to protect themselves.

The increase in flu activity has been testing hospital staffs and alerting other segments of the community to take extra precautions.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced this week temporary changes in liturgical practices at Mass in an effort to avoid spreading the flu. For example, people are asked to refrain from shaking hands or hugging during the sign of peace at Mass, and also not to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer.

The archdiocese also recommends that people who are ill avoid attending Mass.

Whitney Marquez, communications manager for Lovelace Health System, said there has been an increase in flu cases at all four of their emergency rooms in the Albuquerque area. She said the first case seen at Lovelace Medical Center, 601 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. NE, was reported in late October and there has been a 10 percent increase in flu cases at that facility in the past two weeks.

Lindsey Bomke, director of clinical education at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho, prepares a flu shot this week. The New Mexico Department of Health says the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Luke Frank, spokesman for University of New Mexico Hospital, said it has seen a steady increase in flu activity over the past month.

And Doyle Boykin, administrator with Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital, said, “We continue to see a steady increase in influenza and upper respiratory infection cases at our three metro Presbyterian hospitals.”

At Santa Fe’s Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, there had been 200 confirmed cases of flu as of this past Friday.

“Our emergency room has seen an increase in patients and we are seeing anywhere from 130 to 145 patients a day, which is much higher than usual,” said Arturo Delgado, spokesman for Christus St. Vincent. He said that normally about 53 percent of ER patients are admitted to the hospital, but that has climbed as high as 96 percent during the past few weeks.

“While not all (ER) patients are admitted because of the flu, they are accounting for the majority of the new admissions,” Delgado said.

A syringe with the flu vaccine is ready for the next patient at Rio Rancho’s Sandoval Regional Medical Center.

Sharon Guerra, director of nursing services for Albuquerque Public Schools, said it is difficult to measure flu effects. “We don’t require students to give a reason for their absence,” Guerra said.

One statistic Guerra is sure of is the number of APS students who took advantage of the School Kids Influenza Immunization Program, or SKIIP, to get free flu vaccinations October through December.

“We had 4,200 students get the flu shot,” she said. “That’s an 11 percent increase from last year.” SKIIP is a state-funded program.

Sue Holmes, spokeswoman for Albuquerque’s Sandia National Laboratories, which employs 10,600 people, said that as of Tuesday, Sandia’s clinic had seen 20 cases of the flu since October.

“That is somewhat higher than in previous years at this time,” Holmes said.

She said that is not a dependable indicator of how many employees are suffering from the flu since many of them would see their personal physician rather than go to Sandia’s clinic.

Elderly residents are particularly vulnerable to the flu, a fact that has prompted senior living centers such as Albuquerque’s Paloma Landing Retirement Community, which has 130 residents with an average age of 83, to exercise special caution during this flu season.

“We are delivering meals to the rooms, sanitizing the building from top to bottom, keeping people in their rooms and have canceled group activities,” said John Shearer, Paloma Landing manager. “We have taken precautionary measures to make this stop and not go on any longer.”

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