Three times as many flu deaths were reported to the Oklahoma Health Department in the past week than in the previous three months combined.
Six new Oklahoma flu deaths were reported in the week that ended Tuesday. That raises the state's death toll for the current flu season to eight.
Records show 345 Oklahomans have been hospitalized with flu symptoms since Sept. 30, including 92 who have been hospitalized and/or died between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8.
“We're starting to see a pickup, for sure,” said Thomas Ingmire, an emergency room doctor at Presbyterian Hospital. “We were doing pretty well until probably 2½ weeks ago. Since then it has been a (steadily) increasing number of folks.”
Ingmire estimated Presbyterian Hospital emergency room doctors are seeing 30 to 40 flu patients a day. He expects those numbers to go even higher before the flu season peaks.
This year's flu season hit earlier than last year's and shows signs of being more severe.
Only seven patients had been hospitalized with flu symptoms by this time last year and there had not yet been any deaths, said Laurence Burnsed, epidemiologist with the Acute Disease Service of the state Health Department.
Already the state has seen more patients hospitalized with the flu this season than it saw during the entire last flu season when 318 patients were hospitalized, Burnsed said.
And the state still has a long way to go, since the flu season isn't considered over until the end of April. Ten people died during the last flu season, which was considered mild.
Although doctors have noticed an increase in patients, spokespersons for school districts in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond said they have not yet seen any significant increase in absences by students or teachers.
State health officials continue to urge Oklahomans to get flu shots.
“Some people think it's too late, but it's not,” said Bobbie Nubine, chief of immunization services for the state Health Department.
Flu shots become effective about two weeks after they are administered, while nasal flu mist becomes effective in three days, she said.
Flu immunizations won't necessarily prevent someone from getting the flu, but they will lessen the symptoms, she said.
While Oklahomans have complained of spot vaccine shortages at some pharmacies and doctors' offices, Nubine said vaccines are still available at county health departments and many other locations.
She advised calling ahead to verify availability.
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department reported a steady stream of Oklahomans lining up for flu shots Thursday.
8 deaths in state
Of the eight Oklahoma flu deaths to date:
• Three have occurred in Tulsa County and one, each, has been reported in Creek, Mayes, Muskogee, Pittsburg and Rogers counties.
• Four of those individuals were from 19 to 64 years old and the other four were 65 or older.
Tulsa County also reported the most people hospitalized with flu symptoms, 115, followed by Oklahoma County with 43 and Creek County with 17.
AT A GLANCE
Who is at risk?
Among patients experiencing the most trouble are people who had pre-existing pulmonary issues, heart problems, asthma and the elderly, said Thomas Ingmire, an emergency room doctor at Presbyterian Hospital.
Young people who are healthy before they catch the flu can often weather the illness without medical assistance as long as they make sure they stay hydrated and keep there temperatures under control, Ingmire said.
However, health officials say people who feel extremely sick and people at high risk of complications, including young children, elderly persons, pregnant women and people with certain pre-existing medical conditions, should seek advice from their health providers.
What are the symptoms?
Typical flu symptoms include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue.
What are warning signs?
Health officials said parents should be on the lookout for the following emergency warnings signs in children with the flu:
• Fast breathing or trouble breathing.
• Bluish skin color.
• Not drinking enough fluids.
• Not waking up or interacting.
• Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held.
• Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough.
• Fever with a rash.