RICHMOND — With reported flu cases in Virginia ticking up, a less frequently seen type of the virus is being discovered more often this season.
Of the more than 1,800 cases confirmed by lab reports since the start of the 2019-2020 flu season, 75% have been identified as type B, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“We normally see increases a little later, but it’s not unusual. It’s tracking along with what we saw in the 2014-2015 season,” said Em Stephens, VDH respiratory disease coordinator. “The unusual thing about this season is flu B.”
The frequency of type B influenza in Virginia mirrors what’s being seen across the country. It has been found in 68% of all lab-tested cases reported to the CDC. Health officials said type B generally is more common in children, though not exactly more severe. It also means people older than 65 who usually are susceptible to the flu might not catch it this year.
Scott Pauley, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s the first time since the 1992-1993 flu season influenza B has been identified more often than influenza A nationally.
“It’s good news in the fact that hopefully it’ll be a less severe season in terms of deaths, but it’s still looking like it will be a strong flu season,” Pauley said. “We’re not sure when it could peak, but it could be some time between now and February.”
In the last full week of 2019, 8% of all visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers in Virginia were for people with flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough and sore throat, doubling the share of reported admissions for flu symptoms in the first week of December.
While the number of flu and flu-like cases have been increasing in the Richmond area during the past month, a larger concentration of cases have been found elsewhere in the state.
In Eastern and Northern Virginia, officials have respectively confirmed about 1,000 and 325 flu cases this season. In Central Virginia, which includes the Richmond metro area, there have been 84 confirmed flu cases.
That isn’t to say the spread of the flu here is not intense.
In the Richmond area in the week ending Dec. 28, there were nearly 1,000 hospital and urgent care visits for people reporting flu-like symptoms, Stephens said.
“Most people who get sick with the flu don’t seek medical care. Those that do seek care are often diagnosed using a rapid test or based on their symptoms alone,” she said, explaining why VDH publicly reports the number of visits for flu-like symptoms as well.
“The rapid tests that are available are great for clinical practice, but they’re not as accurate as public health would like.”
So far through the 2019-20 flu season, there have been 255 reported pneumonia and influenza- associated deaths reported by the Virginia Health Department. There have been no reported pediatric deaths yet this season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there have been 2,100 deaths from flu nationally this season.
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