Governor Kay Ivey declared a state public health emergency Thursday after a serious outbreak of the flu throughout the state, saying there was a high risk of widespread exposure that would pose "significant risk of substantial harm to a large number of people."
The flu is spreading quickly in Alabama. Hospitals are at or over normal patient capacity as flu patients continue to arrive at their doors, the Alabama Department of Public Health said in a press release Thursday. Emergency rooms and clinics also reported seeing "very high" volumes of patients.
"At this time, this is not a pandemic flu situation, but a major seasonal flu situation," the department said.
The department's interactive map that tracks flu activity has about two-thirds of the state experiencing "significant" influenza activity. A band of counties through the central area of the state shows those counties relatively clear of the disease as of early January, including Clay, Cherokee, Calhoun, Blount, Talladega, Bibb, Tuscaloosa, Walker and other counties, as well as Mobile and its surrounding area.
All other counties in the south and north of the state, as well as Jefferson county in the center, are experiencing high levels of flu infection, according to the department.
Ivey said hospitals and health care workers are "overwhelmed" and are working to the extent that "care of patients may now no longer be provided in the traditional, normal and customary manner."
Some hospitals have begun diverting patients due to a shortage of beds, and others have been forced to reschedule non-emergency surgeries as flu patients push hospitals to their limits, AL.com reported.
“For this time of flu season, it is unusual to see this many cases this early. Our peak level is usually in February, so we are seeing a higher peak earlier than in normal flu season for this area," Brooke Bailey, director of infection prevention at East Alabama Medical Center told the Opelika-Auburn News.
Governor Ivey directed government agencies to assist ailing communities and health centers to deal with the flood of infections and allowed healthcare workers and hospitals to begin "alternative standards of care" emergency plans if necessary.
The Alabama Department of Public Health also advised employers and schools to waive requirements for people to show doctor's notes for absences to encourage sick people to stay home and not spread the disease.
This year's flu season is expected to be particularly rough after an abnormally nasty outbreak in Australia, which is widely seen as a precursor to what happens in the United States.
Part of that may be because this year's flu vaccine wasn't especially effective against the virus circulating in Australia. In fact, according to the LA Times, it only worked about 10 percent of the time. Other experts put the current vaccine's effectiveness at around 30-40 percent, slightly less than last year's effectiveness rate of 39 percent, reported Fortune.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't get the shot, health officials say.
Annual vaccines against the flu are recommended for everyone older than six months, and it's especially important for those whose bodies are more vulnerable to disease. The vaccine takes about two weeks to provide immunity, but the flu could stick around until late May, so you've still got time to take advantage of its protection.
Flu symptoms can include some or all of the following:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults
Here are ways the Alabama Department of Public Health says you can prevent the flu:
- Get flu vaccine; it is not too late
- Stay at home if you have a fever
- Wash your hands
- Cover your cough and sneeze
- Clean and disinfect
- Learn home care
The department asked people with mild or moderate flu symptoms not to go to their doctor's office or to an emergency room without calling first, as you may be able to receive medicine without risking infecting others.
The rest of the country has been hit hard by the flu as well. Doctor's visits for flu-like symptoms were up across all regions the CDC monitors as 2017 came to a close. Normally about 2.2 percent of visits are for flu symptoms. Toward the end of the year, it was up to nearly 6 percent.
According to the latest information from the epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control, there was at least moderate influenza activity throughout Georgia, with instances of the disease rising steadily since the CDC began tracking the season in October.
At least 60 people have been hospitalized around the metro-Atlanta area for the flu, according to the CDC, though Georgia has not reported any deaths yet.
In California, it's a different story. Emergency rooms are reportedly packed and health officials say that 27 people younger than 65 have died of the flu since October, reported the Associated Press.