ASPEN - Flu season already is under way, and there are indications that it could be a busy one, local health officials said this week.
The city of Aspen's environmental health director, C.J. Oliver, said that after a slow start, the season for coughs, sneezes and sick days is ramping up quickly nationwide. During an Aspen City Council work session on Tuesday, he urged members of the community to get a flu shot.
"The flu virus that we're seeing this year appears to be a pretty nasty strain of flu," he said in reference to the H3N2 virus that has made itself known around the country and on Colorado's Front Range.
"That's the bad news," Oliver said. "The good news is that the flu shot being provided this year is a spot-on match to this new strain that we're seeing."
Dr. Morris Cohen, public health officer for the city and Pitkin County, said Wednesday that across the United States last week, there was a sudden spike in the percentage of positive tests for influenza.
"We're seeing 16 percent of those tested being positive for flu," he said. "That's a big difference from 3 percent in the weeks before."
Cohen said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning that the spike is occurring much earlier than normal.
"The CDC is saying this is like the 2003-2004 season, and we're worrying because this is an earlier peak and a higher peak," he said. "On the Front Range, they're a couple of points above normal. They're starting to have an epidemic right now."
Looking state by state, the current hot spots for influenza are in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, Cohen said.
"But it's coming," he added, referring to the Western Slope.
Ginny Dyche, community relations director for Aspen Valley Hospital, said that since flu season started Oct. 1, only two individuals have tested positive. Both of those tests were performed last week.
The hospital keeps statistics on influenza cases that are confirmed by the hospital's laboratory. Those lab tests originate from suspected flu cases brought to the hospital's emergency room, its clinics or local doctors' offices, Dyche said.
Oliver said the CDC reported that nationwide between Nov. 18 and Nov. 24, 571 of 812 positive tests involved influenza A, which includes H3N2 and the strain that was common in 2009 and 2010, H1N1, also known as the "swine flu." Influenza B accounted for the balance, 241 cases.
The vaccine that health providers are applying across the United States, including Aspen, is effective against H3N2, H1N1 and influenza B, he said.
A lot of people in the Aspen area, including children, have been exhibiting flu-like symptoms in recent weeks, he said. But it's not influenza - rather, it's a nasty cold to which some refer as "the Aspen crud."
"The symptoms are less severe but similar in nature," Oliver said. "There's a bad cough, headache, fever, congestion, body ache, those kinds of things. Influenza will typically be longer in nature and more severe, as far as the symptoms go, than a typical cold.
"Instead of three days, you're looking at seven or more days. Instead of fever of 99, you're looking at 102. It's a cold on steroids."
Oliver pointed out that during the winter flu season in Aspen, an outbreak can be magnified because sick people tend to keep working because of the nature of the seasonal economy.
"We bring all of the people and the activity into town, and with it, the potential for exposure just skyrockets," he said. "The nature of our work force doesn't lend itself to staying home. That's something we're always up against, whether it's restaurants or hotels or you name it. There's an extra motivation to come into work when you're trying to make 12 months' worth of salary in six months or eight months."
Dyche said flu symptoms need to be taken seriously.
"The one thing we try to reinforce to people is that influenza is an illness that takes you out. You're really very ill. And there is the potential for complications that can be (life-threatening)," she said.