Flu Season Difficult To Track In Idaho

Jan 15, 2013

Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Leslie Tengelsen
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the flu is now widespread in 47 states, including Idaho.  Doctor Leslie Tengelsen is Idaho’s deputy state epidemiologist.  She says the flu season has arrived early this year.  

Tengelsen has been monitoring influenza from her office at the Department of Health and Welfare, even though she's been fighting a winter cold.  "I just have a little bit of chills, stuffy nose, a little bit of a cough, but overall, I’m o.k., I’m just kind of taking it easy, drinking lots of fluids and getting lots of rest," she explained to Samantha Wright in a recent interview. " I’m on the healing, mending end of things, so I’m heading back to work today."

Q. How do you know you don’t have the flu?

A. A lot of the symptoms are quite similar between the cold and the flu, but the flu really, generally is much more severe, you’ve got body aches, headaches, usually a fever, you just don’t feel good at all.  Some people even have gastrointestinal signs, some vomiting possibly.  In general it’s like a very, very bad cold.

Q. Have you ever had the flu?

A. Not to my knowledge.

Q. So you haven’t experienced that?

A. No, I’ve been one of the lucky ones.

Q. Do you get a flu shot every year?

A. Not every year, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to get one every year.

Q. Folks who have been diagnosed with the flu say there’s a big difference between having a cold and having the flu and you don’t really know it until you’ve had the flu.

A. I believe that’s true.  You’re certainly hearing of people heading to the emergency rooms and seeking medical attention through their health care providers and I think a lot of people a common cold don’t tend to do that.

Q. Idaho’s flu season started earlier than usual.  It’s shaping up to be maybe more severe than a regular year.  We’ve had eight people who’ve died, all over the age of 50.  Can you predict how this year’s flu season will turn out?

A. Sadly, we are now up to nine deaths, all still in individuals over fifty.  Our heart goes out to the families of individuals that passed away.  It’s very tragic.  The flu season is very difficult to predict.  We typically see a 

"The flu season is very difficult to predict. We typically see a peak of activity in February and March," explains Tengelsen.

peak of activity in February and March.  Flu seasons can occur prior to the Christmas holiday but typically they tend to occur after January.  So how do I know how the season is going to go?  I don’t.  It appears to be on the rise, still.  We’re hearing snippits of reports of activity starting to diminish already on the East coast, but that can change from week to week.  I guess we’ll just see when it’s all over and look back at the season and see how severe it really was.

Q. How does Health and Welfare track the flu?

A. Influenza is not an officially reportable condition, and so it’s a little tricky to try and get a handle on what’s going on out there.  We have a small but very helpful group of health care providers positioned throughout the state in all the seven health district regions. 

They are private health care providers that report weekly on the percent of flu-like illness seen in their patients.  So we receive reports and we look at those reports on a weekly basis.  We are also made aware of deaths through death records that are received through the Department of Health and Welfare and in that way we learn about what is out there, how severe it is. 

We also respond to outbreaks of influenza in settings like long-term care facilities, nursing homes, or other community settings where it’s brought to our attention that a cluster of influenza is going on so that we can investigate and see if there are ways to help reduce disease transmission in those settings.

Tengelsen reports the information she gathers from around the state to the Centers for Disease Control each week.  That’s how the CDC tracks flu around the country. 

Tengelsen says the best way to avoid the flu is to get a flu shot, avoid sick people, and wash your hands often.  She says soap and water, or hand sanitizer, is an easy way to kill germs.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio