Flu outbreak spares Tri-Lakes, so far

SARANAC LAKE – So far, the Tri-Lakes area appears to have been spared from a widespread outbreak of influenza that led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare a statewide public health emergency this past weekend.

“We’ve been seeing a normal uptick in flu activity, but it doesn’t appear to be heavy at this particular point,” said Dr. John Broderick, Adirondack Health’s chief medical officer. “We seem to be, at the moment – and I have wood I’m knocking on – not to be really getting hit particularly hard by it, but that could change at any time.”

Outside of Adirondack Health’s hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, Broderick said private-practice physicians he’s talked to are seeing cases of flu-like illnesses, “but it doesn’t seem to be having a huge impact.”

Nearly 20,000 cases of influenza have been reported in New York state this season. That’s more than four times the 4,400 positive laboratory tests reported all of last season.

Every county in the state has significant incidence of the flu. It reflects the worst nationwide outbreak in four years. The federal Centers for Disease Control said 47 states are reporting widespread outbreaks, and the flu season is earlier and busier than in recent years.

Franklin County Public Health Director Katie Strack said she was “somewhat surprised” to hear that Adirondack Health wasn’t reporting as severe of a flu outbreak as other parts of the region have seen, although she said she hadn’t received county by county, hospital by hospital information on the numbers of confirmed flu cases.

“From what we’re hearing, it is widespread across the state,” she said. “The state is reporting that doctor’s offices, urgent-care centers and emergency rooms are receiving a lot of patients. It’s all over the place.”

Asked why he didn’t think the local area wasn’t seeing the same trend, Broderick said there’s a high immunization rate, over 80 percent, among Adirondack Health’s staff of roughly 900 people. He also said the lower population density and the area’s distance from large population centers may play a role.

Nevertheless, both Broderick and Strack encouraged people to get flu shots. The vaccine is considered a good – though not perfect – protection against getting really sick from the flu.

“Even if we are isolated now, this tends to be a repeating cycle, and it can come back,” Broderick said. “If you get one now, you may get some protection if we get hit later in the winter.”

The lack of a large number of influenza cases locally doesn’t mean the hospital is not taking precautions. Adirondack Health is restricting visitors to the Stafford New Life birthing center at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake to protect infants from the flu. There are no other visitor restrictions at AMC, although Broderick said people who have a cough may be asked to wear a mask in certain areas of the hospital or in a doctor’s office.

Strack encouraged people to cough or sneeze into their sleeve, wash their hands frequently and stay home from work or school if they’re sick.

Cuomo declared a public health emergency Saturday for the state because of the severity of the flu season across the state. He also issued an executive order suspending for a month the state law that limits the authority of pharmacists to administer immunizations only to individuals 18 years of age or older. Pharmacists are now allowed to administer flu vaccinations to patients between 6 months and 18 years.

In prior years when flu outbreaks have been severe, there has been a shortage of vaccine. Some New York City pharmacies and clinics are already reporting flu vaccine shortages, although the city’s Health Department said Monday the shortages are in individual locations and don’t reflect a larger supply problem.

Broderick said he wasn’t aware of any vaccine shortages in the local area so far.

“Our pharmacy still has a number of doses,” he said. “Usually what happens if there’s shortages, we’ll start to get a number of calls from other places regarding if we can start sharing some. We haven’t got any specific calls like that at this point.”

Strack said the county is considering holding another flu vaccine clinic, “but we don’t have that much vaccine for what I think the attendance is going to be because now the vaccine is becoming harder to find.”

Broderick said Cuomo’s declaration of a public health emergency puts health care providers on alert.

“What it does is put our antennae up more, to realize that even if we are a little bit of an oasis of less influenza or influenza-like illness, that it’s all around us and it could be coming any time, so we have to be prepared,” he said.

The CDC suggested that flu season will peak early this winter. It usually peaks in midwinter and lasts through March.

Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.