Health Care

Missouri is epicenter of national flu outbreak, according to ‘smart thermometer’ app

The flu is bad this year and no state in the country is seeing higher rates of it than Missouri.

That’s according to Kinsa, a company that makes “smart thermometers” and has analyzed data collected from more than 1 million users nationwide.

Kinsa’s thermometers connect to smartphones and can take a fever and other symptoms like cough and sore throat entered into a mobile app to track suspected case of flu. Its latest analysis estimates that about 5.2 percent of Missourians were sick last week, the highest rate in the country.

Kansas was close behind at 5.0 percent and the national average was 3.7 percent.

“Kinsa’s mission is to stop infectious illness from spreading through early detection and early response, and this flu season is shaping up to be one where advanced knowledge could potentially save lives,” said Inder Singh, the founder and CEO of Kinsa, one of several companies that produce smart thermometers.

Kinsa says that over the last two years, its data has come close to matching the Centers for Disease Control’s numbers on influenza-like illness, but usually weeks ahead of time. The CDC collects its data from state and regional reports of doctor visits for flu-like symptoms.

The CDC reports that as of Jan. 6, Missouri and Kansas were recording high rates of such visits, but so were 24 other states.

Kerri Tesreau, the acting director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Division of Community and Public Health, said that in terms of laboratory-confirmed cases of flu, Missouri’s numbers are similar to what’s being recorded nationally.

“It is up from last year, but it is still not to the level that we saw in the 2014-15 flu season,” Tesreau said. “It’s beginning to look comparable to that.”

Randall Williams, the director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said he had no background on Kinsa and would defer to Tesreau on the prevalence of flu in the state.

Regardless, he said this year it seems to be causing more hospitalizations.

“What we’re seeing that makes a difference is this particular strain, (influenza A) H3N2, it appears to be more severe for children and seniors,” Williams said.

Hospitals are absorbing the increase in patients amid a shortage of IV-fluid bags linked to power outages at a factory in Puerto Rico still recovering from Hurricane Maria.

David Dillon, the vice president of public and media relations for the Missouri Hospital Association, said they’re also short on staff.

“Hospitals throughout the state have implemented surge strategies — including activities like calling up additional staff or opening additional beds,” Dillon said.

There were more than 53,000 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in Missouri during the 2014-2015 flu season and almost 3,000 deaths attributed to flu and pneumonia. There were about 2,000 deaths in each of the two flu seasons that followed.

This year the state has recorded 659 deaths since the flu season began Oct. 7, including 108 last week alone.

Williams said there’s no need for panic, but he urged the public to get flu shots if they haven’t already.

This year’s shot only prevents 10 to 30 percent of cases caused by the most prevalent strain, but Williams said it has the power to lessen the symptoms even in cases when people get the flu.

Tesreau said that many years influenza type B gains in prevalence as the flu season goes on, and this year’s vaccine works well against those strains. She said in addition to getting vaccinated, people should wash their hands frequently and stay home with plenty of rest and fluids if they feel ill.

The Boonville school district in central Missouri canceled a day of classes last week because of high levels of flu and a district near St. Louis closed for two days in December. Precautionary school closures have happened in past years as well.

Kinsa’s national data shows the flu spiking just before Christmas, then dissipating for about a week while schools were closed for the holidays and then coming raging back. Williams said that makes sense.

“It’s a contagion thing, so yeah, when people are congregated in confined areas whether it’s work or school we’re going to see more flu,” Williams said. “Around Christmas people are more dispersed.”

Andy Marso: 816-234-4055, @andymarso