Influenza is taking its toll across the U.S., and Kansas has taken the biggest hit as it was recently named the sickest state in the country.

According to Kinsa, a company that makes smart thermometers, Kansas tops the list of states being affected by the flu with a reported 6.6 percent — or more than 190,000 residents — of the state’s population experiencing flu-like symptoms, nearly 2 percent above the national average of 5 percent.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, Kinsa reported it tracks influenza through its smart thermometers, which upload body temperatures to its website and gets nearly 25,000 readings each day. Kinsa claims its smart thermometers are tracking this year’s flu season faster and in greater geographic detail than public health authorities.

Kinsa’s technology was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 and gathered data in subsequent flu seasons; the company hopes to soon publish a study by outside experts assessing its accuracy in measuring the seasonal spread.

While the state as a whole is seeing a surplus in sick Kansans, Finney County is seeing its typical amount of flu and flu-like illnesses, according to local health officials.

“We haven’t seen an influx of people coming in to get their flu shot. It’s been the same (as previous years), though when people are coming in for other services, we’re asking them if they’ve had their flu shot yet,” said Michelle Gomez, charge nurse at the Finney County Health Department. “We’re definitely seeing some flu in here. Obviously it’s hitting statewide, and U.S. wide — 49 out of the 50 states have widespread influenza activity.”

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness that is caused by the influenza virus and can cause mild to severe illness. Symptoms include fever, chills, sore throat, cough, body aches, runny/stuffy nose, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.

Gomez said that according to the latest influenza surveillance reports from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 12.8 percent of visits to clinics and emergency rooms in southwest Kansas are for the flu or flu-like symptoms. She said it is difficult to know how many people will be affected by the flu because it depends on if the virus spreads, how well vaccinations work and if people are taking preventative measures. She added that the state won’t know vaccine effectiveness rates until later this month.

So far this flu season, the FCHD has administered 1,772 flu vaccinations as of Wednesday. Last year, the health department administered nearly 1,900 flu vaccinations, and in 2015, about 1,300 were administered.

The health department is reminding residents that it is not too late to get a flu shot.

“And we will give them until they run out,’ Gomez said. “The season is peaking, so we definitely want people to get their shots before we run out… If you are here being seen for flu symptoms, we ask that you put on a mask. We have little babies that are coming in for wellness shots, and we don’t need them getting sick… We’re also reminding people to get their flu shots… It’s not too late to get your flu shot. Anyone six months of age and older really should get one.”

Over a period of 31 seasons between 1976 and 2007, flu-associated deaths in the U.S. ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

During recent flu seasons, between 80 and 90 percent of flu-related deaths occurred in people 65 and older.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter months, with influenza activity beginning to increase in October and November. Flu activity peaks between December and February and can last as late as May.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s influenza reporting season runs Sept. 1 through May 31, and according to the KDHE, there have been 70 flu-related deaths this flu season as of Monday. Of those, 48 deaths are linked directly to influenza, and 22 more have influenza as a contributing cause.

There were a total of 125 flu-related deaths in Kansas in 2016-17, including 100 directly linked to flu, according to the KDHE. In 2015-16, the numbers were 24 and 19, respectively.

Preventing the spread

Gomez said one of the main preventatives of the flu is getting a vaccination.

"Covering your cough, washing your hands, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, cleaning and disinfecting around you are some preventative measures," she said. "When you're sick, you obviously want to limit your exposure to other people. If you know that you do have the flu, it's best to stay home and stay away from other people."

One person should take care of the sick individuals in a household to prevent other family members from being exposed, Gomez added.

"A lot of people have their own personal preferences on what works for them (when treating the flu or flu-like symptoms). If they have questions on other ways to prevent or combat the flu, they should consult with their doctors,” Gomez said.

Those who have a higher risk of contracting the flu are people 65 and older, people with chronic medical conditions or underlying medical conditions — like asthma or chronic lung diseases — as well as pregnant women and young children.

Shawna Deal, St. Catherine Hospital Community Relations Coordinator, said the hospital currently has visitor restrictions in place to prevent the spread of flu, as the hospital is not allowing visitors 12 and younger. She noted that the restriction is typical each year.

Hitting the schools

Garden City USD 457 has also been hit with the flu, though school officials are saying the district’s student absent rate is only slightly up compared to this time last year.

During the last two weeks, the district has started to see an increase in the number of students absent due to illness/flu, according to Roy Cessna, the district’s public information coordinator.

“This (past) week, we are averaging about 300 students per day that are absent across the district due to illness, which is slightly up from last week’s average of 275,” Cessna said, noting that it is about 4 percent of the total enrollment.

Cessna said the district works to combat the flu in various ways.

“… For the last several years, the district has encouraged students and staff to get the flu shot,” he said. “The district provided flu vaccination outreach clinics during October for staff. The district believes in prevention whenever possible, and flu vaccine is our best preventive treatment. As always, we try to provide a safe school environment for students and staff.“

The flu virus can be spread by droplet, through the air when someone coughs or sneezes on others and by direct contact with someone who has the flu. Because of this, the district is encouraging all to cover their coughs or sneezes by coughing or sneezing into their elbow.

“Most viruses enter our bodies through the eyes, nose, or mouth, so we educate students and staff about the importance of keeping their hands away from the ’T ZONE’, which is the eyes, nose, and mouth,” Cessna said. “The virus is less likely — but can be spread through contaminated surfaces — so our custodial staff is vigilant in cleaning frequently touched surfaces on a daily basis at the schools.”

Cessna said students and/or staff should stay home from school or work if they have the flu or flu-like symptoms.

“This can help them recover faster from the flu. It also helps prevent the virus from spreading to others, which is critical in keeping everyone as healthy as possible,” he said. “It is usually recommended that when you are sick you stay home until you are well enough to go back. This is typically 24 hours after the symptoms begin to improve. Usually that means 24 hours without a fever without the use of anti-fever reducing medication.”

Cessna noted that it is at the discretion of each school building to determine if parents and/or guardians need to provide a physician’s note if a child is out with the flu.

“If parents do take their child to the doctor, it is suggested to have them get a note from the doctor to have it available to provide to the school,” he said.

Flu shots

Gomez said the health department does not do appointments for flu shots, but patients who are at the clinic by appointment for another reason can get their flu shots while they are there. Walk-ins are welcome during business hours from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

The FCHD accepts most private insurances, as well as KanCare and Medicare. It also offers flu shots for uninsured children through the Vaccines for Children program, a federally funded program that provides vaccines at no cost to children who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay, according to the CDC.

For more information on flu vaccinations, contact the FCHD at (620) 272-3600.

Most county health departments, grocery stores and drug stores that offer flu vaccinations provide them on a walk-in basis. Kansas Walmarts are also offering flu shots.

Genesis Family Health, 712 St. John St., is offering flu vaccinations. Clinic hours for Genesis are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed 1 to 2 p.m.). Those inquiring about flu vaccinations at Genesis can call (620) 275-1677.

Contact Josh Harbour at jharbour@gctelegram.com.