Flu makes late-season surge in Maine, Shah warns

Influenza cases are on the rise in Maine at a time of year when seasonal illness is generally declining, the state’s top public health official warned Wednesday.

Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there have been nine flu-like illness outbreaks in the state in the past week, the most outbreaks in a single week. since February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Shah issued the warning in a series of Twitter posts Wednesday afternoon.

The flu typically peaks in February, when people are typically indoors and the virus can spread easily. It tends to dissipate in the spring, when the weather is warmer and people go outdoors, where the disease doesn’t spread as easily.

Flu activity during the 2020-21 season was “unusually low,” the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The CDC said a record number of flu vaccines were distributed last year and that the measures put in place to mitigate COVID likely had the additional benefit of reducing the spread of influenza.

The CDC said those steps — like wearing masks, staying home longer, closing schools, reducing travel and other measures — likely helped suppress the spread of the flu last year.

The CDC said there was also a very low number of flu variants circulating during 2020-21.

But Shah said flu indicators are higher now than at any time since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

He said there were 700 positive tests for influenza in Maine last week, the most since March 2020 and far more than last year. By comparison, Shah said, there were 215 positive tests for influenza throughout the 2020-21 season.

And, he said, two large benchmark labs reported a test positivity rate of more than 20 percent, also the highest number since March 2020. Last week also marked the most tests ever done this season, 1,210, Shah said, “what the high positivity rate suggests is not due to a lack of testing.”

Other indicators cited by Shah are an increase in the percentage of outpatient flu visits and hospitalizations for flu treatment. He said 17 people were in Maine hospitals with the flu last week.

Shah said prescription antiviral drugs can be used to treat the flu and reduce the risk of serious complications.

Flu shots were available during the winter through doctors’ offices and pharmacies, but they may not be available now.

A spokeswoman for pharmacy chain CVS said the flu shot was not available at any of its stores. She said the chain expects to receive the vaccine for the 2022-23 flu season in mid-August.

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