This might be a good time to build a wall on Wisconsin’s southern border — and make Illinois pay for it. Flu-like illnesses sweeping the country have hit the Land of Lincoln harder than the Badger State, so far — and a wall might keep the virus at bay, right?
Not necessarily. And, even though La Crosse County is faring better than it did last flu season, things could change in the blink of an eye, the shake of a hand or the spray of an uncovered sneeze, said Jo Foellmi, a public health nurse with the La Crosse County Health Department.
It wouldn’t be a joking matter if flu and related respiratory illnesses latched on harder.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it started creeping up, but I would be happy if it didn’t,” Foellmi said during an interview Wednesday.
Nearly 30 deaths in California
The flu is slamming California harder than any other state, with nearly 30 deaths among people there who are younger than 65, but influenza-related cases have set off alarms in 46 states, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Included in that tally are Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, and the exceptions are Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Maine, according to CDC figures.
Minnesota cases are deemed below the baseline to sound an alarm, Wisconsin’s are described as moderate levels and Illinois, widespread. Actually, cases in the Gopher state are concentrated in metro areas — the Twin Cities in particular — but less pervasive in the Southeast, including Winona and Houston counties, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Locally, we are right about where we were last year,” including some hospitalizations that are typical during any flu season, Foellmi said.
Usually, La Crosse County logs about 20 flu-related hospitalizations a season, but “this year, we are up quite a bit,” Foellmi said. “I’m almost expecting 35 to 40.”
50 million died worldwide in 1918
Noting that, technically, the season has just begun, Foellmi hesitatingly mentioned the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu, which a CDC study labeled the “Mother of All Pandemics.”
Influenza killed up to 50 million people around the world that year — more than three times the number of people who were killed in World War I, according to the CDC. It afflicted more than 25 percent of the U.S. population and killed 675,000 Americans — sometimes drowning them in their own phlegm within three days.
This season, it appears that increasing numbers of people are going to their doctors and testing positive, so it also could be that more folks are experiencing fevers and respiratory problems, she said.
The flu virus runs in cycles from year to year, depending on its virulence, vaccine effectiveness and the numbers of people who get their shots, she said.
“In 2015, it was awesome — we had only nine hospitalizations,” she said. “Last year, we were hit hard, with 86 flu-related hospitalizations, but that includes the first few months of the 2016-17 season.”
It’s not as if area residents are being diligent about rolling up their sleeves, according to research that county public health nurse Bryany Weigel completed in a run-through of the Wisconsin Immunization Registry.
Just 31 percent of county residents between the ages of 6 months and 100 years were up to date on their influenza immunizations as of Wednesday, Weigel said.
“This number depends on if all the area organizations that give flu shots have entered their data into the WIR system yet,” she said. “If they have, then it is 31 percent. If they haven’t, then this 31 percent is probably lower than the actual percentage.”
The county health department has used about 75 percent of the vaccines it had allotted for the season, and the department has entered all of its data in the registry, she said.
Some people may be balking. Mutations zapped the effectiveness of last season’s vaccine, which some people use as an excuse for skipping, along with claiming they don’t worry because they’ve never gotten the flu, Foellmi said.
Flu viruses have a knack for mutating quickly because “they have some awesome genes — in a bad way,” she said.
High hopes for the effectiveness of this season’s vaccine were deflated when its performance lagged, but not as badly as last year’s.
“On vaccinations, my take is whether the vaccine is poor or not, 35 percent or even 10 percent protection can prevent hospitalization, needing help breathing and an IV,” Foellmi said.
She also cited a community service aspect to getting a vaccine, because older people and people who are taking immunotherapy drugs or undergoing chemotherapy can be especially vulnerable.
“For immunities that are compromised, we always think that these people are just in hospitals, but they are in stores,” schools, libraries and other public places, she said.
Duty to protect neighbors
Vaccinations “are not just for us, so we don’t get the flu, but for the community,” she said. “It’s to protect our neighbors.”
People who feel ill or have a runny nose should stay home, she said, adding, “We don’t want to be around you.”
Her husband, Terry, is a prime example of a former scofflaw she had to rehabilitate, Foellmi said with a somewhat victorious laugh.
“He never missed a day of work” but contracted the flu last year, she said, adding, “I could tell from 50 feet away, he was so sick and looked so bad.”
Of course, the fact that he had gotten the shot for one of the few times he had done so morphed him into an I-told-you-so flubird, she said.
“I told him, ‘No, you’d be worse, and you could be in the hospital,’” if he hadn’t gotten the shot, she said.
“Now, he is a firm believer,” even admonishing co-workers who are sick to go home, she said. “He is a fiend. When someone at work is sick, he tells them they shouldn’t be there.”
Foellmi hesitated to diagnose California from afar, speculating that people “are guessing, ‘This is sunny California, and who gets the flu,’ and the density of population” as another factor.
“There’s something to be said for living in a smaller community,” she said
Foellmi cited the need for speed in disinfecting a home if someone contracts an illness.
“When my husband got it, I sprayed everything — tables, doorknobs — he might have touched and used Lysol wipes on everything so none of the rest of us got it,” she said.
“And when he tried to come downstairs, I told him to get back up there,” she said, chuckling.