By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
As winter weather settles in and flu season approaches, St. Joseph health officials are closely watching for the potential of more flu cases than last year, as well as the possible arrival of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
St. Joseph Health Department spokesperson Stephanie Malita says the number of flu cases locally, so far, aren't jumping off the page, but the peak of flu season typically won't happen until February or March.
"So, getting that flu vaccine now is going to help protect you from flu during the holiday season," Malita said.
Flu activity during the 2020-21 season was very low nationwide, likely due to COVID-19 prevention measures. In the first eight weeks of surveillance for this flu season, however, Missouri has reported 853 positive influenza cases already.
There were only 1,795 total flu cases reported in Missouri last season.
"We feel like last year, the flu cases were so non-existent, because so many people wore masks," says Debra Bradley, director of the St. Joseph Health Department. "They socially distanced, they stayed home, they washed their hands. So, if people would continue to do that, then that would also have a positive impact on the number of flu cases."
Area health officials are also preparing for the arrival of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant, which was confirmed in the St. Louis area in the first week of December - the first known case in Missouri.
At least 19 states and 50 countries have reported Omicron so far. While it hasn't been discovered in northwest Missouri yet, Bradley says they're watching for it carefully.
"It really is still too early to make any big decisions based on it," Bradley noted. "But, it's looking like the Omicron variant is a little bit more contagious."
Early indications from South Africa suggest the severity of Omicron may not be as bad, as hospitalizations there have not risen dramatically. However, the local area continues to deal with rising cases of the Delta variant.
From Dec. 2-6, the St. Joseph Health Department reported 253 new COVID-19 cases in Buchanan County. The positivity rate in the county jumped 4.73 percentage points since last week. The positivity rate now stands at 14.55%.
In total, COVID cases in Buchanan County from October to November increased by 252%. The 515 cases reported through the first week of December is over half of the 1,004 cases reported in all of November.
Mosaic Life Care has also reported a sizable increase in COVID hospitalizations. As of Wednesday, Mosaic is treating 50 COVID patients in its system - 45 in St. Joseph, three in Maryville and two in Albany.
"It's probably going to continue to go up over the next few weeks," Bradley said of the local COVID numbers, "because of the continued holidays. We have a lot of holidays in December, and people are just gathering together."
Malita says whether it's COVID, the flu, or some other respiratory illness where the symptoms can overlap, the prevention measures remain the same.
"Washing hands is always key," she said. "Maintaining that physical distance, especially when you're out in public around those you don't typically spend time with. Wear a mask. If you're not feeling well, stay home."
Bradley emphasizes the best defense against the flu and COVID-19 is vaccination. Flu vaccines are available for those as young as six months.
The first doses of the COVID vaccines are available for anyone older than five, and the booster shots for those 18 and older who have been vaccinated against COVID for at least six months.
"We just want people to have a safe and happy holiday," Bradley said, "and the best way to do that would be to get vaccinated."
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