20 new flu deaths reported in North Carolina, health officials say

New numbers from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released on Thursday show another 20 people died from the flu this season. This brings the total number of reported deaths from the flu this season to 110.

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Last week, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said 17 new people died from the flu.

North Carolina flu season officially started October 2, 2016. This is the fifth straight week that the death toll has reached double digits.

"Compared to last year, this is a more severe season," said Dr. Zack Moore, the acting state epidemiologist said. "Last year we did have a flu season, it was a little more mild. It was a different flu virus than what's going around now."

To compare, last season there were 59 total reported flu deaths. But Moore said this 2016-17 season mimics the 2014-15 season, when North Carolina record 218 deaths. This was the highest number of flu-associated deaths reported since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

"It's the H3N2 virus and it's a type of Influenza A and that's um, when we have H3N2 seasons we tend to see more illness in people over 65 and we do sometimes see a little more in terms of severe illness and higher numbers of flu associated deaths," Moore said when asked about this season.

He also said that for this flu season, we already seem to be hitting our peak in reported flu cases during the past few weeks, which is later than usual. He worries this means the death toll could rise.

"The peak in flu deaths is not going to come for another week or two weeks so we are going to continue to see an increase unfortunately in the numbers of flu associated deaths," Moore said.

Number from WakeMed and its recent flu stats show the peak in reported cases in the new year:

Week ending March 4 - 209 positive flu tests (out of 1165 flu tests ordered)
Week ending February 25 - 286 positive flu tests (out of 1461 flu tests ordered)
Week ending February 18 - 273 positive flu tests (out of 1284 flu tests ordered)
Week ending February 11 - 175 positive flu tests (out of 897 tests ordered)
Week ending February 4 - 115 positive flu tests (out of 712 flu tests ordered)
Week ending January 28 - 50 positive flu tests (out of 525 flu tests ordered)

Dr. Moore said the vaccine and antiviral drugs out right now do cover several strains and so far they have not heard of any reports of drug-resistant strains. He does, however, point out that even with the vaccine your risk of flu infection is still only cut by half.

"We wish we had a vaccine that was a hundred percent, more like we have for measles or hepatitis A, but it's still the most effective thing we have out there," Moore said.

Experts at DHHS also point out that their reports do not represent the true number of flu-associated deaths since many cases are not diagnosed or reported. They said these numbers serve as reminders that the flu is a serious illness. Those who are especially at risk include women who are pregnant, adults older than 65, children younger than 5, and those with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

Doctors encourage people to take the following preventive steps from contracting the flu:

- Get a flu shot
- Wash hands frequently, preferably with soap and water or an approved hand sanitizer
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then discard the tissue promptly
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
- If you are sick, stay home until you have been fever-free for at least 24 hours
- Avoid close contact with sick people

For more information on flu and to find out where you can get a flu vaccination in your community, visit www.flu.nc.gov.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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