The last week in January saw a spike in influenza cases reported in Montana, and Missoula County now has the highest numbers of infections in the state this season.
That’s according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which keeps track of flu cases. Missoula County had a jump of 84 new cases the week of Jan. 26, and now has had 205 total reported cases for the season. That’s the highest in the state, with Ravalli County coming in second at 171.
In Montana so far, there have been 1,486 cases, 75 hospitalizations and two deaths due to influenza, including a kindergarten student in Missoula late last year.
Allison Eaglespeaker, 6, died in early December from Influenza B and pneumonia.
The most common influenza subtype identified this season is influenza A H1N1.
Colleen Morris, the immunization clinic manager at the Missoula City-County Health Department, said it’s normal for there to be a little surge in cases of the flu at this point in the winter.
“The cases that are reported are following a relatively normal pattern of what we see every year,” she said. “The peak is probably happening right now. Then it’s going to start dropping off.”
Morris said that in the beginning of the year, only cases that are confirmed by the state lab are recorded in statistics. Later in the year, “rapid test” results are included.
“So that sort of inflates the numbers a little bit,” she said. “The reported cases are probably way less than we actually have out there, because not everyone who has the flu comes in, but we’re in a normal pattern this year.”
She said she couldn’t explain why Missoula County and Ravalli County had higher numbers of reported cases than other counties in the state.
Morris said she is still encouraging anyone who doesn’t have a flu vaccine to walk in to the clinic on Alder Street in downtown Missoula. The vaccine this year more closely matches the actual strain that’s widely circulating, she said, compared to last year when it wasn’t a great match. That means the vaccine is much more likely to prevent a person from getting sick from the flu this year.
The cost is $46, and there are sliding fee scales for those who are in need.
At the Broadway Pharmacy at Providence St. Patrick hospital, the regular flu vaccine is $30. Most insurance plans cover a flu shot. JoAnn Hoven, a marketing and communications specialist at the hospital, said they’ve seen 25 cases so far this year.
“It doesn’t seem to be any worse than last year, and last year was a bad year,” Hoven said. “We have seen some RSV (respiratory syncytial virus that causes mild cold-like symptoms) and norovirus, and sometimes with those people think they have the flu.”
Megan Condra, the director of marketing and community relations at Community Medical Center, said family medicine providers and walk-in clinics are reporting high numbers of flu cases.
"More people seem to be recognizing the symptoms early and seeking less emergent care by visiting their doctor or a walk-in clinic vs. the emergency room," she said. "Additionally, having a flu death so close to home has brought a heightened sense of awareness this year. At the first sign of symptoms, parents are bringing their children to be seen by a medical provider."
Dr. Jim Quirk, a family medicine physician with Community Physician Group and the medical director for Community FirstCare, said symptoms of the flu include a fever greater than 100.4 degrees, a cough, sore throat, body aches, runny or stuffy nose and tiredness, among others. Walk-in vaccines are available at Community FirstCare for $30 seven days a week, or insurance can be billed.
"If patients seek medical care within the first 48 hours, medical providers can give them an anti-viral to minimize symptoms," Quirk said. "If someone else has the flu, you don’t have to wait to get sick to seek care, a medical provider can prescribe anti-viral medications to prevent the flu if you’ve been exposed. This is especially important for high-risk people."
In the 2017-2018 season in Montana, there were 10,431 reported cases, 979 hospitalizations and 79 deaths from the flu. Approximately 68 percent of the children who were hospitalized didn’t have a flu vaccine, and 48 percent of adults who were hospitalized didn’t have a flu vaccine.
For more information about influenza in Montana visit https://dphhs.mt.gov/publichealth/cdepi/diseases/influenza.aspx.