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October 17th, 2013
05:32 PM ET

CDC back at work to track the flu

Update 10/18 3:30 p.m.: The CDC has released an abbreviated FluView report for the week ending in October 12. See it here

Published 10/17: Now that the U.S. government shutdown is over, federal workers are returning to work, including the furloughed doctors and epidemiologists who work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

One of the many things the CDC does is keep track of the flu, something that was stopped on October 1, leaving the overall flu picture in the United States a little murky.

Every Friday, the CDC is supposed to post how many cases of flu have been reported in the 50 states and U.S. territories. But during the shutdown, the CDC said on its website that it would "not be routinely analyzing surveillance data nor testing laboratory specimens submitted as part of routine surveillance."

So the most recent weekly CDC report provides data for the week of September 21. Under normal circumstances, the CDC would be posting data tomorrow from the week ending October 12 (they are always one week behind).  But since their staff is just now returning to work, it's likely the FluView reports will probably resume next Friday, a CDC spokesperson said.

Fortunately, immunization program managers and health officials in each state have been on the job for the past two weeks and have kept up with their flu surveillance. 

For many states, the 2013-2014 flu season began at the end of September or at the beginning of October, which is when they start to ramp up their surveillance. And with the help of some of these public health officials, CNN collected data from 10 states to get a snapshot of where we are when it comes to flu season. (Full disclosure: This is in no way remotely comparable to what the CDC produces each week).

For example, influenza-like illness activity has increased in recent weeks across Texas. Health officials describe the intensity of the illnesses as “low," having recorded six positive flu test results last week.

As of last week, Illinois, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Kentucky and West Virginia were reporting no activity.

"Tennessee is not seeing signs of notable influenza activity," says the director of Tennessee's Immunization Program, Dr. Kelly Moore. What her state doesn't do is test to see if circulating strains are well matched to what's in this year's flu vaccines. That's something the CDC normally does and is now behind on.

Health officials in Wyoming tell us they are receiving "sporadic reports of influenza activity from multiple counties across the state." As of October 12, they had four cases reported.

Iowa doesn't require health care providers to report flu, so the number of cases this state reports is probably underestimated, but the state's health department describes it as "sporadic." Louisiana and Arizona are also reporting sporadic flu activity.

It's likely the CDC will soon send be spreading their annual "Get your flu shot" message again. Until then, Vermont's immunization program manager and nurse practitioner Chris Finley has this advice: "Flu activity is low, which means it's a very good time to get a flu shot because there is still time to be protected before the flu season hits."

The CDC also tests to see to see if current flu strains circulating among us are becoming resistant to existing antiviral medications like Tamiflu or amantidine. So there will be some more catching up to do by federal health researchers. 

Besides getting a flu vaccine, which the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for nearly everyone 6 months and older, there are a few other things you can always do to prevent getting sick:

– – Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.  If you wash them as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, your hands should be properly  cleaned.  Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good back up if you don't have soap and water.

– – Stay home when you're sick so you don't infect others.

– – Avoid people who are sick, if possible.  According to the CDC, "People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. " People who have the flu can spread the virus when they cough, sneeze or talk.  Droplets carrying the flu virus can travel through the air and someone else could inhale the virus and get sick.


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