A Fremont County child died this week from a flu-related illness, the Wyoming Department of Health said Friday, bringing the state's likely influenza-related death toll for this season to at least 11.
“We continue to see widespread influenza across the state with indications of high activity levels," said Alexia Harrist, state health officer and state epidemiologist. "We do not know if we have yet reached this season’s peak or for how much longer flu will spread in the state."
The child is the only Wyoming pediatric death that's known, a health official said, though there's more reporting requirements for those fatalities.
Last year, there were 15 flu-related deaths during the influenza season in Wyoming, which stretches from October to May. The season's peak is typically in mid-winter. Natrona County had at least three flu-related deaths as of early January, health officials said.
Health department spokeswoman Kim Deti declined to describe the flu's spread as an epidemic, citing specific criteria epidemiologists require. But she said it wasn't "anything exotic."
"Obviously we’re looking at a lot of illness this year," she said. "But it happens every year."
In Natrona County, the school district has seen "a lack of student and staff attendance ... related to flu cases and illness," said Wendy Wilson, the district's nurse coordinator. School officials have also seen "an increase in parent calls to school nurses related to questions about when to send their child to or when not to send them."
District officials recommend keeping a child home if he or she exhibits flu-like symptoms, which they identify as "a fever over 100 degrees with a cough or sore throat. Other flu symptoms can include tiredness, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea." The student should stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever subsides without the aid of medication.
Deti said officials aren't prepared to say the spread of the illness is ebbing, she said there's been an increase of a different strain that's typically less severe than the dominant strain seen thus far.
"While H3N2, an ‘A’ virus, has been dominant so far this season, we are now seeing a shift in Wyoming to some ‘B’ viruses,” Harrist said. “Historically, seasons with high levels of H3N2 have been associated with more severe influenza illnesses with higher numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.”
The national spread of the flu is worse than it's been in years, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The season has been driven by a nasty type of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths than other more common flu bugs. But its long-lasting intensity has surprised experts, who are still sorting out why it's been so bad. One possibility is that the vaccine is doing an unusually poor job; U.S. data on effectiveness is expected next week.
A government report out Friday shows 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu. That ties the highest level seen in the U.S. during swine flu in 2009.
Influenza-related illnesses have "reached 7.7 percent this week and is the highest level ... recorded since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which reached 7.7 percent," CDC officials wrote last week. "The overall hospitalization rate is higher than the overall hospitalization rate reported for the same week during the 2014-2015 season; the most severe season in recent years."
"I wish that there were better news this week, but almost everything we're looking at is bad news," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC.
At least 63 children have died nationwide this season from flu-related illnesses. Wyoming is one of 43 states that's experienced high influenza-related illness activity.
The mortality rate nationwide attributed to the flu and pneumonia "is high again at 10.1% for the week ending January 20, 2018 (week 3). This percentage is above the epidemic threshold of 7.3% for week 3 in the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Mortality Surveillance System," the CDC wrote.
"What I’m finding, having been here 25 years, this is a rate for us that is above average,” county health officer Mark Dowell said last month. “It’s not as aggressive as H1N1 was back around 2009, but it’s more aggressive” than usual.
State health officials typically do not have a complete death count from flu-related illnesses until the season ends, officials have said, when the state gathers data from death certificates.
But officials warned in December that they were seeing an uptick in flu activity.
Dowell, who was unavailable to comment Friday, said last month that the Northern Hemisphere normally takes it vaccine cues from Australia, where the flu typically appears first. But the nation had a bad season this year, he said, and the strain of the flu that the vaccine was supposed to protect against mutated.
Still, Dowell, the CDC and the state Department of Health all recommend that people over the age of six months be vaccinated.
There are a number of groups that are especially at risk for flu complications, including young children, older adults, people with chronic illnesses and challenged immune systems, pregnant women, the extremely overweight, those under age 19 taking long-term aspirin therapy, and residents of nursing homes.
Physicians may recommend prescription antiviral medications to treat the illness. But to make that option most effective, "it is important to seek medical care quickly once you become ill," Harrist said in the health department's press release.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.