Aggressive, widespread flu strain is hitting Michigan schools, seniors hardest


Influenza cases have risen sharply across southeast Michigan, as a particularly aggressive strain of the influenza virus takes a toll on schools, nursing homes and health care facilities. 

According to a report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Weekly released Monday, influenza activity in the state is considered widespread with "535 positive influenza-related hospitalizations (30 pediatric and 505 adults)" since Oct. 1. 

Of the 318 cases testing positive for influenza by the MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories, 245 were confirmed to be the particularly aggressive H3N2, also known as Type A. Many people don't actually get tested for the flu so the actual number of cases is much larger.

The report also showed that among the 195 reported cases of viral respiratory illness outbreaks, the majority — 138 — happened in long-term care/assisted living facilities, 25 in K-12 schools/colleges and 23 in health care facilities. 

"Long-term care and assisted living facilities serve a population vulnerable to influenza infection (particularly in an H3N2 season), and are the congregate settings most often reported as having outbreaks," said agency spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin. "All areas of our state have reported outbreaks in these settings."


In response to widespread cases of influenza (plus an outbreak of Hepatitis A), Henry Ford Health System and Beaumont chain hospitals have banned young visitors from entering the hospital if they are not seeking treatment, in order to prevent the spread of disease. 

More: As flu spreads in metro Detroit and nationwide, young visitors not as welcome in hospitals

More: Michigan is facing an alarming Hepatitis A outbreak

Meanwhile, colleges and universities have pushed back by promoting immunization and offering pop-up flu clinics for quick and easy vaccinations. 

Wayne State University's Campus Health Center won both national and state immunization challenges for providing vaccines this month. 

"When someone is sick with the flu, one can easily miss 1-2 weeks of classes. By getting the flu vaccine and having good handwashing habits, the chance of getting the flu and spreading it to others is greatly reduced," Ann Rayford, chief nursing officer at the WSU Campus Health Center said. 

Schools and college campuses can be high exposure areas for illness with high foot traffic and people working in enclosed spaces.  

Lisa Marshall, director of the Western Michigan University health center and a primary care physician, said the first case of the flu on campus was recorded within the first two days of the spring semester. 

Considering the number of cases and the severity of the symptoms she has seen, Allison Weinmann, a Henry Ford Hospital infectious diseases physician and director of the health system's immunization task force, said people may find that the flu or flu-like symptoms are hitting harder than usual. 

What makes this flu season different than years previous is the dominance of cases linked to the H3N2 strain, Weinmann said. Adding that while different strains mutate or change from year to year, H3N2 is more "virulent" than others.

“Every flu season has the potential to be severe and this one seems to be more severe in terms of the people affected,” she said.

H3N2 is associated with more hospitalizations and deaths among children and seniors and what's more, the latest flu vaccine has shown to be a poor defense against this year's strains — last year's efficacy numbers were 39% overall and 32% effective or less up against H3N2, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More: Michigan's flu season is yet to peak — and the vaccine isn't helping much

Matthew Sims, an infectious disease researcher at Beaumont,  said the state still hasn't seen the worst yet.

"We still haven't hit the peak yet. Some come in and get discharged right away. Some get admitted," he said. 

Some cases are fatal. So far this year, 37 children have died of the flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

In Michigan, Michael Messenger, a Clay Township sixth-grader, died on Jan. 11 after presenting with flu-like symptoms, according to the Port Huron Times Herald. His mother told the paper he had been vaccinated in December, but was taken to an urgent care after vomiting during dinner. Messenger was prescribed anti-nausea medication, but was found unresponsive the next morning. 

Henry Ford's Weinmann said even if this year's vaccine isn't completely effective, it's still important for people to get the shot. The vaccine does offer some protection and makes symptoms less severe, she said.

"The most important message is that it is not too late to get immunized," she said. 

More: Everything you need to know about the flu: Symptoms and more