TRAVERSE CITY — Flu season is approaching its peak — and the number of cases is below the norm.
The number of flu cases appears to be among the lowest the Grand Traverse area has experienced in the last 20 to 30 years, said Dr. Michael Collins, medical director of the Grand Traverse County Health Department.
That’s based on the number of positive flu tests reported by Munson Healthcare labs, Collins said. Once the positive results get started, they usually increase relatively quickly and reach a peak of a couple hundred each week, he said.
This year there only were about 50 positives the week of March 3, and about 40 the week before that, Collins said. The six to eight weeks prior, the average hovered around 20 to 30 cases, he said.
Those ultimately are rather meaningless numbers, though, Collins said.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “To have one of those reports show up requires that the patient decides to see a doctor and the doctor decides to do the test.”
There are many cases where the person doesn’t get sick enough to see a doctor or the doctor is confident enough to make a diagnosis without a test, Collins said.
The Grand Traverse Children’s Clinic is seeing an uptick in the number of confirmed influenza cases, but no more so than this time last year, said Dr. Tuan Bui. The clinic’s doctors administer about 10 to 15 tests per day — focusing on those who have specific symptoms associated with the flu, he said.
Initial symptoms include sudden onset of fever, muscle aches, headache, tingling in the throat and general weakness, said Dr. Salah Qutaishat, system director for infection prevention for Munson Healthcare. The respiratory symptoms come next, he said.
“Patients turn up and say, ‘I feel like I got hit by a train or a truck,’” Qutaishat said. “That’s the first kind of clue to start to realize you have an infection caused by the flu. … Running nose and coughing, those are kind of later on after you get hit by the truck.”
Some people also experience vomiting and diarrhea, but it’s not common with influenza, which is an upper-tract respiratory infection, Qutaishat said. Those typically are symptoms of the norovirus — often called the “stomach flu,” he said.
There are two kinds of flu, Qutaishat said. There’s the kind where you sit on the couch and are miserable for three days — and then there’s the kind where you get hospitalized and have complications, he said.
Munson measures the severity of flu season by the number of patients admitted for the illness — numbers that clearly are showing this year is much milder than 2018 for the Grand Traverse area, said Qutaishat.
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back Collins' and Qutaishat’s assessments.
CDC statistics of national-, regional- and state-level outpatient illness and viral surveillance show that Michigan’s 2017-18 flu season peaked between the second and seventh weeks of the year.
Data shows that 8,000 “influenza like illnesses” — ILI — were reported during that time by medical providers working in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The fifth week of 2018 was the peak, with 1,620 ILI cases reported by 89 providers, reports show.
An ILI is defined as a fever of 100 degrees or higher accompanied by a cough and/or sore throat, according to the MDHHS website.
Comparatively, only 2,544 cases were reported during those same weeks in 2019, the CDC shows. The third week of this year has the most cases thus far — 489 reported by 89 providers, the report shows.
Collins, Bui and Qutaishat said they suspect this flu season might last longer than it does most years.
That means it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine, Collins said. If you get the vaccine and still end up contracting the flu, it almost assuredly will be less serious, he said.
There’s no public health emergency based on current data, but flu season isn’t over yet, said Qutaishat.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but thus far it’s not a threat,” he said. “(The flu) will continue to be a public health issue until we conquer the infection by developing a universal vaccine.”