Flu season hitting Florida children the hardest — so far

Have you gotten the dreaded phone call yet from school or daycare to come pick up your sick child?

Flu cases are beginning to climb this fall, and in Florida the virus has hit children the hardest. Aches. Cough. Runny nose. They are all symptoms of this year’s circulating bugs.

So far this fall, most of the influenza outbreaks in Florida have been in childcare facilities, according to state health data. Lab samples show the predominant strain in the state is Influenza A H1N1, which has symptoms that can even include vomiting and diarrhea in children. It is highly contagious and spreads mostly through air droplets during coughing or sneezing.

“We are sending out gentle reminders to parents,” said Karla Creque, associate vice president of operations for YMCA of South Florida. “If your child is sick, keep them home. And they must wait 24 hours after symptoms are gone to return.” YMCA offers afterschool programs, child care during use of the gym, and youth sports programs.

For most children, the flu clears after about five to seven days. However, the Florida Department of Health surveillance shows one child already has died from it this season. In 2022,  12 children in Florida died from the flu, according to the Florida Department of Health.

“We are seeing more children with pneumonia from influenza than in a typical year,” said Dr. Michael Weiss, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist with Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. “In general, we are probably seeing more kids with viral respiratory issues this year than in the years before the pandemic.”

Initially, influenza presents like other viral respiratory illnesses with a mild cough, Weiss said. “Most end up seeking emergency care because of the fever. A small percentage of kids will develop more severe infections … sometimes pneumonia, dehydration and problems breathing.”

Working parents dread flu season

At the YMCA, Creque said she understands how working parents with sick children find flu season challenging.

To keep the flu from spreading, Creque said the South Florida YMCAs continue to keep sanitizer stations in prominent locations, sanitize regularly, and do health checks when parents drop off their children. “If a child is sneezing or coughing, we do ask the parent if the child is sick,” she said. “I am a mom; I get it. We get ‘it’s just allergies’ a lot. We have the three-wipe rule. If we wipe a child’s nose more than three times, we will come get you. The child is exposing a room full of kids and staff.”

Creque said she hasn’t seen many children out with the flu — yet.

Nationally, flu vaccination coverage for children 6 months to 17 years is 27%, about the same percentage as last year at this time, according to the CDC’s National Immunization Survey-Flu. National coverage for all adults is 28%.

In Florida, much of the state has seen an increase in reports of flu and influenza-like illness since early October, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties

Are we there yet? Yes, we are.

Weiss said in Florida, the flu season starts in September and runs through late March, after spring break. So, it’s not too late to get a influenza vaccine, he said.

In all age groups in Florida, the number of weekly flu hospital admissions is increasing. The majority of hospital admissions with flu diagnoses as of Nov. 4 were 65 and older — the age group always most vulnerable.

Experts say flu seasons in the U.S. are unpredictable, but historical data suggests the peak is January and February.

“It’s a little different every year, ” said Dr. Mary Rodgers, associate research fellow and infectious disease research expert at Abbott. “We typically see the most cases during January and February, but it’s hard to be sure that’s what will happen this year.”

It can be hard to distinguish between flu, COVID, RSV and strep throat because the symptoms are similar, Rodgers said. An at-home test will confirm whether it’s COVID.  “It’s good to be prepared during respiratory season and have a test on hand,” she said.

While there isn’t an all-in-one home test for COVID and flu, Rodgers said pharmacy clinics and doctors’ offices have the rapid tests that can diagnose the specific illness.

What to do if you get the flu

With a flu confirmation, doctors often give antiviral medications, but the drugs work best when started within two days of getting sick.

Some of the antivirals can be given to children. Weiss said he typically gives them to children at high risk or who are under 2 years old. “It doesn’t shut the symptoms down, but they have been shown to shorter duration and may decrease the risk of complications,” he said.

Of course, prevention always is the better route. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu shot to reduce the risk of getting ill this season.

Cindy Goodman covers health for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. You can reach her with ideas and comments at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com. 

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