The United States is poised to plunge into flu season, with millions of people suffering the coughing, body aches, headaches, sore throats and fatigue wrought by the potentially deadly viruses.
But the federal agency charged with tracking, monitoring and analyzing seasonal flu activity has been laid low by the partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1.
The shutdown has greatly impeded the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's handling of seasonal flu, says Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who is the CDC's crisis communication specialist.
"About two-thirds of CDC staff have been furloughed," she says. "Our job is to find threats, stop threats, and prevent threats from happening again. We are weakened in our effort to find threats, we will do all that we can to stop them when we are aware of them, we are not doing the prevention work during the shutdown."
The shutdown has also affected how CDC monitors and tracks seasonal flu outbreaks. CDC publishes flu data online through FluView, which is not being updated.
"We are not analyzing data from our sentinel spots across the nation," Reynolds says. "This means three things: One, we will not be offering the weekly flu view that gives health care providers and the public a snapshot of how much flu is circulating in their area. Two, we will not be doing the lab analysis to determine whether or which antivirals (for example, Tamiflu) works against the circulating strains, and three, we will not do the lab analysis to determine whether the flu virus strains circulating are a good 'match' with the flu vaccine formulated for this year meaning we won't be able to predict how effective the flu shot will be against the flu viruses this year.
"It is more difficult for CDC to make recommendations to health care providers about managing the influenza illness," Reynolds said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health also tracks outbreaks. DOH monitors flu activity, and posts updates and information on its website at www.flufreepa.com.
Seasonal flu tends to emerge between October and March, peaking in January and February. As the United States edges to the start of the flu season, medical providers urge people especially the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems to be vaccinated.
Although most people weather a bout with the seasonal flu with no ill effects, the virus can be deadly there are an estimated 23,000 deaths a year, according to CDC.
An exact figure is not known, because states aren't required to report flu deaths in those over age 18 to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal flu isn't likely to be listed on death certificates of those who die from complications. Also, many flu deaths occur more than a week after the initial infection with the virus, after a person has developed a secondary bacterial infection or because the virus aggravated a chronic condition, such as heart failure.
On Tuesday afternoon, Blue Mountain Health System phlebotomist Diana Caputo sat down in the multi-purpose room of Palmerton Hospital. She dutifully rolled up her left sleeve and Infection Preventionist Dodie Harleman swabs her arm with alcohol before administering a dose of vaccine.
Blue Mountain Health System is among many hospitals that require employees to get the shots to reduce the possibility of transmitting the illness between staff and patients.
"Employees can ask for an exemption for medical contraindications or religious beliefs. It is offered free of charge to employees, volunteers, medical staff, contracted staff and students of BMHS. Those who don't receive the vaccine will be required to wear masks throughout the flu season," says spokeswoman Lisa Johnson.
"Influenza vaccination is the single most effective way of preventing influenza infection. Even among those who are not entirely protected, the vaccine still reduces the complications of influenza. Preventing influenza in our healthcare workforce reduces absenteeism and improves our ability to respond to the needs of the community and our patients," Johnson says.
"By having staff vaccinated, along with other measures to control respiratory illness (for example, cover your cough, stay home when sick, and vaccination of patients), is the best way to protect the vulnerable populations we serve," she says.
Health professionals urge most people to get seasonal flu vaccines early.
Although the partial government shutdown has interrupted posting of flu tracking data, it has had no impact on vaccine availability.
CDC spokeswoman Dr. Barbara Reynolds says that "135 million doses are being produced, more than 73 million have shipped."
The Vaccines For Children program, which provides shots for low-income children, also is running smoothly despite the shutdown.
In Pennsylvania, the flow of vaccines is also uninterrupted.
"Vaccine is generally shipped to providers directly from the manufacturers, so we wouldn't anticipate an interruption in availability," says Department of Health spokeswoman Holli Senior. "Additionally, the department provides vaccine to (its) state health centers, Vaccines for Children providers in the state and some other private providers like Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics. The vaccine we provide is shipped to them from a national distributor, and we do not anticipate an impact as a result of the federal government shutdown.