Kent County's latest flu season started early and there are more weeks ahead as the county and state deal with what officials are calling a “very serious influenza season.”

Delaware’s Division of Public Health (DPH) reported the first flu-related death of the 2014-2015 flu season on Nov. 19. One elderly person in Sussex County died from flu-related complications. At that time, DPH also reported a total of 37 cases and warned that the number of cases was expected to rise over the next three months. 

The state’s flu season started in Sussex and quickly spread to Kent County then to New Castle County, state officials said. The spread prompted changes in visitation policies at some area hospitals and caused a blood shortage in the state.

As of Dec. 27, Kent County had 428 of the 1,004 reported cases.

By early January, the flu season had gotten worse than officials expected because of the particular strain of flu that is being seen most often this year. Officials are warning that the number of cases will continue to increase.

Delaware has “an unusually high number of lab-confirmed cases and deaths,”  Dr. Karyl Rattay,  Delaware Public Health Division Director, reported on Jan. 9.

Rattay said at that time, Delaware had 1,340 lab-confirmed cases and 11 deaths. Most deaths were reported in New Castle County.

As of Jan. 16, the state reported 1,530 cases and 15 fatalities.

The statewide numbers so far are significantly higher than recent years, Rattay said. However, the state was not considered to be in the midst of a flu epidemic as of Jan. 9.

“I would consider this a very serious influenza season,” Rattay said. “We’re less likely to call it an epidemic given the fact that we expect to see an increase in influenza illness every season, but again this is an especially severe influenza season.”

In the 2013-2014 flu season, there were a total of 1,842 confirmed  cases in Delaware, with six flu-related deaths, according to DPH.  

State officials said they expect to continue to see a high number of cases for the next few weeks because of the type of flu that being reported in the state.

 “So far, DPH has reported influenza A (H3N2) viruses most frequently compared to other strains. Past experience indicates that when this particular strain is more common, there have been more hospitalizations and deaths, especially among those at highest risk of complications from flu infection,” Rattay said in a statement.

Flu season started early in Delaware this year with the first confirmed case in mid-November. Officials can’t predict when the season will end, but flu season is typically about 10 weeks.

“We are hopeful they we are at our peak or coming down from our peak, but we just don’t know and won’t know until we can look backwards and see through our trends that we have less cases,” Rattay said.

With flu cases continuing to rise, DPH continues to recommend several precautions. The first line of defense is a flu vaccination coupled with increased hand hygiene.

 “Flu vaccines prevent the disease, can reduce the severity of an illness, and protect for the entire flu season,” Dr. Awele Madukah-Ezeh, DPH Medical Director, said in a press release.

If you do get the flu, state officials recommend that those in high risk groups such as the elderly and very young seek treatment with anti-virals. The two most commonly used are Tamiflu and Relenza.

Otherwise health officials said those who get the flu should stay at home to avoid spreading the illness. With that in mind, hospitals including Bayhealth Medical Center and Nanticoke Memorial Hospital temporarily changed their visitation policies.

At the end of December, Bayhealth established a temporary visitor policy that  restricts children under the age of 12 from visiting patients in the hospital. They also asked anyone with any flu symptoms to refrain from visiting hospital patients.

By early January, Nanticoke had followed suit and began to temporarily restrict visitors under the age of 16 and limit the number of visitors to two per patient.

Both hospitals said they will lift the restrictions when flu cases begin to abate. Rattay and DPH said it is too early to say when that may happen.

“Influenza is often unpredictable and this is shaping up to be a very hard year for the disease,” Rattay said.