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North Carolina sees early flu cases, first child dies since 2020

As flu season is picking up, UNC offers walk-in flu shots for all students, faculty, and staff at various locations on campus as pictured on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.

The first pediatric flu death of the 2022-23 flu season in North Carolina occurred this week, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. This is the first pediatric flu death in the state since February 2020. 

According to the NCDHHS, over half of the children who die from the flu do not have any preexisting medical conditions that could put them at risk. 

Five adults in the state have also been confirmed to have died from flu complications this season, according to the NCDHHS.

"Those at high risk for serious flu complications include older people, young children, people with certain health conditions or compromised immune systems," Summer Tonizzo, press assistant for the NCDHHS, said.

The identities of the victims are being kept confidential to protect the privacy of the families. The NCDHHS stated in a Nov 2. press release that it has seen a “rapid early rise” in flu cases this season.

According to data from the NCDHHS's Respiratory Virus Surveillance Dashboard, hospitals in the Hospital-Based Public Health Epidemiologist Network reported around a 249 percent increase in positive influenza cases between the weeks of Oct. 22 and Oct. 29. The dashboard was last updated on Nov. 2 by the time of publication. 

The Hospital-Based Public Health Epidemiologist (PHE) program is composed of a director and seven Public Health Epidemiologists (PHEs) based in North Carolina's largest hospital systems. The program covers about 38 percent of general and acute care beds and 40 percent of emergency department visits. 

“During October through May, NCDHHS’ Division of Public Health provides weekly updates on the spread of respiratory diseases, including influenza and COVID-19, in North Carolina,” Tonizzo said.

The past two season were historically low in flu cases and deaths, according to an Oct. 26 release from the NCDHHS. 

This year, however, cases in North Carolina are occurring earlier in the season than normal and the rate of cases is increasing, said Dr. David Wohl, professor at the UNC Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

Wohl said more cases are being seen this year than at the same point last year.

He also said increased flu cases are related to not properly mitigating COVID-19 alongside the flu. Wohl said people should still wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the spread of the flu, even though restrictions have been lifted. He added citizens should be mindful of what they touch, since fingers also transmit the flu virus. 

Michelle Camarena, director of nursing and performance improvement at UNC Campus Health, said that the flu season could be more severe due to the earlier start of cases this year, even though she has not yet seen an immediate increase.

However, she also said it is too soon to know for certain if the disease will continue to have higher case rates throughout the season. 

Camarena said that campus Health collects data throughout the season until March. This is when people can get the “full picture” of the severity of the flu season.

“It is certainly earlier in the season than we have seen in the past few years, and certainly more cases than we have seen during the pandemic because COVID pushed all those other respiratory viruses out for a while,” Camarena said.

She and Amy Sauls, director of pharmacy and professional services for Campus Heath, said the most effective preventive measure for the flu is getting vaccinated. Vaccines are available through Campus Health and the Student Stores Pharmacies.

“We do have the vaccine, the flu vaccine, the quadrivalent, available on a walk-in basis at both pharmacies, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday,” Sauls said.

Sauls said that people can also go to the Student Stores on additional Saturday hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and make appointments at Campus Health’s immunization clinic.

Camarena added that along with getting vaccinated, continuing to wear a mask, especially when you feel sick or have flu symptoms, can help prevent the flu.

She said masks should be worn for COVID-19 and any respiratory symptoms in any season. Coughing and sneezing are symptoms that spread illnesses through respiratory droplets, which can be contracted within three to six feet and can be prevented by a mask.

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“We’ve finally gotten to this place where we feel like we’re maybe free of masks, but they do make a difference,” Camarena said.


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