Part one in a series.
This year’s flu virus — the H3N2 — is powerful, so much so that the flu season is longer this year and more people are falling victim to the virus. Just last week the Centers for Disease Control reported that more than 2,000 people were hospitalized nationwide with the flu. According to medical professionals, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
“We saw our first cases in November around Thanksgiving,” said Greg Gulbransen, a pediatrician in Oyster Bay. His office, open seven days a week, has been unusually busy with children suffering from the flu, he said. “Typically, it’s three weeks that people come in with the flu and then it settles in. I agree with the Centers for Disease Control that it has been a very aggressive year. I think it will be this way until sometime in March.”
The effects of a long flu season have caused unexpected shortages. Medical professionals are running out of test kits, pharmacies are turning customers in search of antiviral flu medications like Tamiflu away, saying they do not have any left and in some places, there is a shortage of the flu vaccine.
Doctors continue to recommend the vaccine, saying it is not too late. They believe it is necessary to get one, even though some who get it will still come down with the flu.
“If you do get the shot and then come down with the flu, the severity will be much less, as well as the duration,” said Dr. Barbara Keber, who has been a family physician for the past 36 years. She is the chairwoman of family medicine at Glen Cove Hospital and the vice chairwoman for family medicine at Northwell. “And if you had the vaccine, the chance of developing additional complications will be much less.”
What people are saying
Keber said she believes that this year’s media coverage has helped to encourage some who have not gotten the vaccine in the past to get it. But others continue to believe there is no need. Some are even suspicious of the reports and recommendations.
“I haven’t had a flu shot in 20 years,” said Bill Mozer, of Glen Head. “Who’s paying for these ‘free’ shots? I feel the drug companies are cashing in on this big time with government funding.”
Joan Phillips, of Glen Cove, who had the flu years ago with symptoms so dire she ended up in the emergency room, disagreed that there is an ulterior motive. “I feel the free shots from the county are a positive attempt to achieve what is called in veterinary medicine ‘herd health,’” she said.
“That is, the greater percentage of individuals vaccinated, the better chance that the epidemic will decrease markedly, even if 100 percent are not vaccinated. I’m willing to gamble that the percentage of protection will be in my favor; that if I get it, it will be milder due to being immunized.”
Thia Evaggelia, of Glen Cove, supports getting the flu shot. “I’m 60, and both my mom and I had the flu shot at CVS on Forest Avenue,” she said. “It’s been one month, and no reactions. I’m glad we did it.”
Carl Riano, of Roslyn Harbor, who didn’t get the vaccine this season, got the flu. “My whole life I have been one of those people that never believed in the flu shot,” he said. “It started out as a slight cold; then I was experiencing all sorts of muscle pain, congestion, fatigue and loss of appetite. The flu completely ruined my Super Bowl weekend, as I was not able to really move, cook or eat.”
Even so, he said he won’t get the flu shot in the future. “I feel it builds character to go through something like this,” he said. “Anything the mass public is injecting into their system would concern me.”
Janet Viel, of Glen Cove, and her husband had their flu shots in November. “We have not been sick,” said Viel. “We get the flu shots every year without fail and have never gotten the flu. We are definately in favor of this vaccine as well as the pneumonia and shingles vaccines.”
Deborah Gordon, of Glen Head, has never had a flu shot. “I know many who get the flu shot and got sick anyways,” she said. “I feel the media likes to scare people yearly about the flu.”
The effects of the flu
Traditionally, those who suffer from chronic illnesses are more susceptible to the flu, Gulbransen said, as are children under two. But this year’s flu is different.
“I had to put two of my patients in the hospital, one in the intensive care unit,” he said, adding that the children were 13 and 4. The severity of the symptoms was alarming. “These children that had to be hospitalized were perfectly healthy before they got the flu and that’s what is unusual about this.”
Keber said Glen Cove Hospital has been “inundated with patients with the flu,” adding that the average patient is over 65. She also continues to diagnose many patients with the flu at her office in Oyster Bay.
And although there have not been any fatalities in Glen Cove or its surrounding areas, she remains concerned. “We are seeing large numbers of patients that were vaccinated that are still getting sick,” she said. “They aren’t recognizing that they have the flu, so they go about their regular activities and are spreading it. The Department of Health tracks the flu, and it’s going up on a weekly basis.”
Gulbransen said the emergency rooms are packed. “We are reluctant to send our children to Cohen Children’s [Medical Center] because the wait is over three hours,” he said. “It’s a wonderful hospital but that is too long to wait.”
How the vaccine is made
The creation of the flu vaccine is “based on a guess,” said Keber, “of what will be the most predominant flu for the up and coming year. It’s not the greatest way of figuring it out.”
The medical profession in the United States studies what happens in the Southern Hemisphere when its flu season occurs, which is during summer in the Northern Hemisphere, she said. “It takes a long time to manufacture the vaccine — a six-month process. We start doing this in the spring/summer the year prior [to when it will be used].”
“And no one knows how effective the vaccine will be until the end of that year,” she said. “In Australia, the flu vaccine was effective 10 percent. We modified ours, so we think we are doing better.”
Alyssa Seidman and Zach Gottehrer
contributed to this story.