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The Flu in Chicago: Going Beyond the Flu Vaccine

Article By: Devin O'Brien, M.A.

The flu season started early this year and is primed to peak over the next few months. We’re experiencing a particularly bad year for the flu and we may just be getting started. As of February 2nd, 2018, the CDC has reported a continuing week over week increase in flu activity, hospitalizations, and death. 


Listen to the CDC's February 2nd press briefing


The rapid spread of Influenza A (H3N2) is increasing the number of visits to healthcare providers. With the flu shot holding a 10% effective rate, we need to take alternative measures to reduce transmission rates and push back on this deadly outbreak.


How is Chicago Fairing Through the 2017-2018 Flu Season?

Hospitalizations and deaths are our primary indicators for severity of the flu season. When commenting on emergency room visits, Chris Hwang, Medical Director of Emergency Services at Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora, explained: “I don’t know if we’ve peaked yet, but the last two weeks have been extremely busy. . . the hospital has consistently seen a surge of patients, at least 30 to 40 more patients a day than is typical throughout the year . . .”

The Chicago Tribune reports that, in Chicago, 6.2% of total ER visits were for influenza-like illness for the week of Jan. 7 through 13, compared with 5.8 percent the week before. As of February 2nd, flu related hospitalizations have increased to 7.1% nationwide. Current rates are slightly under the flu pandemics of 2009 at 7.7% and 2005 at 7.6%. We are on pace to repeat some of the highest levels of flu activity in the past 12 years. 


Good Morning America - New warning about the deadly flu outbreak as the dangerous strain spreads across the country. A CDC official tells us how effective the vaccine is.

Northwestern Medicine reported over 500 patients have now tested positive compared with just 56 in the last year. If Australia’s flu season is a predictor of what we might experience in Chicago, we could be in for a highly severe season (and we may just be getting started).   


“For the 2017-18 flu season, manufacturers projected they would supply the United States with 151 million to 166 million doses of injectable influenza vaccine. As of Nov. 24, about 148.2 million doses of vaccine had been distributed.” - CDC: 2017-18 Flu Season in U.S. Dominated by H3N2 Viruses


What Can We Do to Reduce Flu Circulation?

We need to give the Chicagoland community the best chance to avoid contagion. The flu shot should be everyone’s #1 priority; however, this year’s vaccine was particularly ineffective against the Influenza A - H3N2 Strain. If the flu vaccine is only partially effective, what else can we do to protect ourselves from this season's challenge?


The Obvious 

We all know the basics when it comes to avoiding contact with the flu. Generally, we should all be:

  • Replacing and isolating toothbrushes.

  • Not sharing lip balms or other products that make open contact with the mouth.

  • Cleaning sheets and bedding frequently.

  • Being cautious where we place hands and fingers. 

  • Covering mouths when we cough or sneeze. Use your shoulder and not your hands to block the air (the latter can contaminate everything you touch after your cough or sneeze). 

The most effective measures are clearly the flu shot and proper hand washing, but we’re not getting the most out of these tools and methods, which may be adding weight to this particularly challenging flu season. 

  • The Flu Vaccine - This year’s shot has resulted in a 10% effective rate. Canada and Australia’s flu numbers tend to correlate with the United States and we’re realizing a reduced effectiveness against this year's dominant strain (Influenza A - H3N2). 

  • Hand Washing – While effective, this preventative measure calls for soap, warm water, and at least 20 seconds of our time. This best practice is not common for most people and the true benefits of proper hand washing are not experienced.

Learn more about proper hand washing techniques


The Less Obvious

While the flu vaccine and proper handwashing are our primary means of defense, they may not be completely effective and may need supplemental support. We’re recommending three additional methods that may help reduce transmittance and the circulation of the uncomfortable H3N2 flu experience.

  • Wipe down your phone, TV remote, and other electronics with sanitizing wipes. Don’t forget restaurant menus, your car steering wheel, and maybe most importantly, your door handles. These items can be some of the dirtiest we encounter on a daily basis. 

  • Bring your own pen – and even better – use a pen with antimicrobial properties built into the plastic polymer. Pens circulate faster than almost any other promotional product. They're great for advertising, but not for reducing flu circulation. Use a pen you trust. 

  • Use hand sanitizer . . . frequently. Hand sanitizers are portable and are incredibly easy to use. From a public health standpoint, proper hand washing is technically more effective, but most people don't do it right. Frequent hand sanitizing is the simplest means of reducing flu transmission. Keep pumps centralized at home & work and keep a personal sanitizer on your person for when you're on the go. 


Sanitizing is the Smart Solution: The flu virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours. If you’re in an environment that has been exposed to the flu or frequent traffic (e.g. hospitals and clinics), make sure you’re decontaminating what you touch on a regular basis with a proven disinfectant: antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. 


The time is now to boost preventative measures. Utilize tools that provide a community benefit and help Chicagoland reduce the impact of the deadliest flu season in over 12 years. Antibacterial products are not just effective at reducing flu circulation, they're also excellent canvases for sharing best practices and directing our community to additional hospital resources. 


Get the Tools to Protect Our Community