While recent data shows that flu-related hospitalizations have fallen across the state, health officials warned Monday that the virus is still widespread and dangerous.
As of Jan. 20, about halfway through this 33-week flu season, there have been 7,353 influenza-related hospitalizations in Ohio, including 567 in Franklin County, according to the most recent Ohio Department of Health report.
"It’s a nasty flu season out there, and it's not getting any better," said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner and medical director for Columbus Public Health. "I would encourage people to still be vigilant."
Statewide, the 1,681 hospitalizations reported in the week ending Jan. 20 represents a decrease of about 7 percent from the week before. In Franklin County, the local report says the weekly number of hospitalizations dropped by about 22 percent to 127.
Still, health officials caution that hospitalizations are just one measure of the flu's severity and say it's too soon to determine whether the virus has hit its peak.
"We have one area that we're hopeful about; in other areas we have to wait for data," said Dr. Clint Koenig, the state health department's medical director.
Nationwide, flu remained widespread for the week ending Jan. 20 in all states except Hawaii, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been 37 pediatric deaths in the United States.
This season's hospitalizations are similar to what was seen in 2014-15, the most recent high-severity season, Dr. Dan Jernigan of the CDC said last week. Overall, influenza-like illness activity is the worst it's been since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, he said.
Koenig said this season's flu is so brutal largely because many current cases are caused by H3N2 influenza, a strain that is particularly aggressive, affects the elderly and the young more severely and naturally mutates, rendering vaccines less effective.
Still, officials continue to recommend getting the vaccine, saying it can make flu cases less severe. Koenig said patients should ask for the "quadrivalent" vaccine, which has protection against two strains of influenza A and two strains of influenza B. People over 65 should get a high-dose vaccine, he said.
Those reluctant to get the vaccine, he said, should do so to prevent contracting a virus they could spread to elderly, children and other loved ones around them.
Officials also advise people to wash their hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, cover sneezes with the crook of their elbow and stay home if sick.
See a doctor if you are having trouble taking care of yourself or staying hydrated or if you have a fever or persistent cough, Koening said. Be especially vigilant if you have a chronic health condition such as diabetes, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
So far this season, the state health department reports three child deaths in Ohio: a 4-year-old boy in Montgomery County and 1-year old boys in Lucas and Summit counties.
The statewide hospitalizations reported so far already surpass the number reported in three of the previous five full seasons.
Erin Griggs, regional director of clinical quality management for the Mount Carmel Health System, said the bulk of patients come through the emergency department with respiratory symptoms that can become severe if not treated quickly.
"We're seeing a major rise in the flu," she said. "We already have more patient hospitalizations this flu season than all of last full season."