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By Rose Hoban

With this year’s flu season finally reaching a peak, close to half of North Carolina hospitals are implementing restrictions on visitors for hospitalized patients.

According to the North Carolina Hospital Association, 50 of North Carolina’s 135 hospitals have imposed some restrictions on allowing young guests, or people with flu-like symptoms, from visiting patients.

“It is definitely an effective strategy to be sure that patients aren’t being exposed to things,” said Zack Moore, the interim state epidemiologist. “As far as what kinds of restrictions they put in place and what thresholds they use, that’s entirely up to the individual hospital. We don’t, as a public health department, give any recommendations or guidance to the hospital on their visitor restrictions.”

Moore said that each hospital’s surveillance on illness is “intense” and each facility will make decisions based on what’s happening with the flu locally.

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Older and later

Moore said the strain that’s making people sick this year is one that hits elderly people harder, most of the 44 deaths seen this year have been of people who are older.

“Whenever we have a H3N2 virus circulating, the deaths do tend to skew towards older people,” Moore said.

And he said there are likely more deaths that will be reported in coming weeks.

“If you think about it, it makes sense. It takes time for people to get sick and then, whether it’s a severe flu infection, or whatever takes place, that causes them to die, and then it takes time for those reports to come into public health,” Moore said. “A lot of people who die from flu never get reported to public health because they never got tested for flu or because they got tested and the test came up negative or because the physician was unaware that that’s a reporting requirement in this state.”

He did say that early feedback from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate this year’s flu vaccine is cutting a person’s risk of getting flu about in half.

Unlike other vaccines, such as the measles shot, flu vaccines are not 100 percent effective. That’s because many strains of flu virus circulate throughout the population, but there are only  a handful of strains covered in each year’s flu vaccine. So, vaccine manufacturers and public health experts have to take very educated guesses about which virus will make the rounds in a given year.

“It looked like overall, vaccine effectiveness was about 50 percent meaning that people who got the vaccine were about half as likely to get flu as people who did not get the vaccine,” Moore said. “So, we all wish it were 100 percent but it’s still pretty good.”

Over the past few weeks, flu rates have peaked, in a pattern that’s more like historical patterns seen in past flu seasons. In contrast, in recent years, flu activity has peaked in late December and early January, just in time for the holidays.

When asked what effect this year’s unseasonably warm weather might be having on the flu season, Moore said it’s hard to know.

“Nobody really fully understands all the factors that contribute to spread,” he said. “Flu definitely prefers cold dry air… the virus itself can survive in cold, dry air. That’s one factor, but it’s just one of many.”

Hospitals with flu restrictions (as of Feb. 23)

Cape Fear Valley Health – Including Bladen County Hospital

Carolinas HealthCare System – All CHS facilities, including:
•    Carolinas Medical Center
•    Levine Children’s Hospital
•    Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy, Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Pineville
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Union
•    Carolinas HealthCare System University
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Lincoln
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Cleveland
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Kings Mountain
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Stanly, Carolinas HealthCare System Anson
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Health-Charlotte
•    Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Health-Davidson, Carolinas Rehabilitation-Charlotte
•    Carolinas Rehabilitation-NorthEast
•    Carolinas Rehabilitation-Mt. Holly, and Pineville Inpatient Rehabilitation

Cone Health – All Cone Health facilities, including:
•    Alamance Regional Medical Center
•    Annie Penn Hospital
•    Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital
•    Moses Cone Hospital
•    Wesley Long Hospital
•    Women’s Hospital
•    Cone Health MedCenters

Duke University – All participating Duke facilities, including:
•    Duke University Hospital
•    Duke Regional and Duke Raleigh Hospitals
•    Duke Ambulatory Surgery Center
•    James E. Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center

Granville Health System

New Hanover Regional Medical Center

Novant Health – All Novant Health facilities, including:
•    Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center
•    Novant Health Charlotte Orthopedic Hospital
•    Novant Health Clemmons Medical Center
•    Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center
•    Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital
•    Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center
•    Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center
•    Novant Health Matthews Medical Center
•    Novant Health Medical Park Hospital
•    Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center
•    Novant Health Rowan Medical Center
•    Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center
•    Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center
•    Novant Health UVA Health System Haymarket Medical Center
•    Novant Health UVA Health System Culpeper Medical Center

Sampson Regional Medical Center

Southeastern Regional Medical Center

Vidant Duplin Hospital in Kenansville

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center – All Wake Forest Baptist inpatient locations, including:
•    Lexington
•    Davie County
•    Winston-Salem

Data courtesy: North Carolina Hospital Association

Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...