Right in time for the holiday season, the flu has arrived in Kansas City.
The Kansas City Health Department said Monday that reports of flu cases surged dramatically last week.
And schools throughout Johnson County notified the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment of unusually large numbers of students out sick with flulike symptoms and gastrointestinal illnesses.
“This year looks like we’re a little bit ahead of last year with the flu,” said Jeff Hershberger, spokesman for the Kansas City Health Department. “Last week, we had a pretty good spike.”
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Kansas City doctors reported to the Health Department that 133 of their patients tested positive for the flu last week, compared with just 32 the week before. Hershberger said those numbers grossly under-represent the true number of cases because not everybody who gets the flu sees a doctor and not every doctor tests for flu viruses.
In Johnson County, seven schools from four districts reported student absences Monday ranging from 11 percent to 24 percent. Schools notify the county Health Department when their absentee rates are higher than 10 percent.
The highest absentee rate — 24 percent — was at the Shawnee Mission district’s Briarwood Elementary School in Prairie Village. Twelve percent of the district’s Crestview Elementary School students called in sick, as well as 11 percent at Broken Arrow Elementary School.
“We are seeing higher-than-usual absentee rates, especially in those three schools,” said Leigh Anne Neal, spokeswoman for the Shawnee Mission district. Students have had a variety of complaints, mostly upper respiratory and some gastrointestinal illnesses, she said.
Shawnee Mission schools are sending home letters urging families to take precautions for the flu and cold season, giving tips as well as listing symptoms, Neal said. Custodial staff have been urged to be extra-thorough in wiping down “high-touch” areas, she said.
A survey by The Star of area districts turned up one school on the Missouri side of the state line with large numbers of absences. Pleasant Hill’s Primary School (which serves pre-kindergarten through the second grade) had an 18 percent absentee rate Monday, district Superintendent Wesley Townsend said.
The local situation appears to be in line with that in the rest of the nation, which saw a steady increase in doctor visits for flulike illnesses during the latter half of November, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the second week of November, Children’s Mercy Hospital saw an uptick in flu cases that has been steadily accelerating for the last two weeks, said Angela Myers, an infectious diseases physician at the hospital. Of the 462 patients that Children’s Mercy tested last week, 32 percent were positive for flu.
“We’re not at the peak, but we’re definitely on the rise,” Myers said.
This season’s flu appears to be affecting all age groups, but particularly younger children and older adults, Myers said.
Most of the flu cases at Children’s Mercy have been the H3N2 virus strain. The CDC said last week that this year’s vaccine is not a good match for a mutated form of the virus that is circulating widely this season.
Myers said that should not be a reason to avoid getting vaccinated. The shots may protect against other flu strains that could become more prevalent later in the season. Even a partial match to the H3N2 virus provides some protection against what is considered a particularly harsh flu strain.
“You would, hopefully, have less severe disease than if you hadn’t been vaccinated at all,” Myers said.