The flu is the worst it's been in the Interior in three years, but there's no reason to panic, say health officials.
Eighteen residential-care facilities have reported flu outbreaks in the past couple of weeks, three of them in the Kelowna area. Six people have died in the Interior, but it's not clear whether influenza is to blame, said Dr. Peter Barss, medical health officer for Interior Health.
"People have one or more chronic diseases, so we don't know if any of the folks who have died actually died of influenza. It could be other conditions," he said Wednesday.
The average age of people in long-term care homes is 83. Some are close to death, so they're at high risk of succumbing to the H3N2 flu. Elderly people who are healthy shouldn't be alarmed by that, Barss said.
"We don't even know if it's cause or effect."
By contrast, the Fraser Health Authority says there have been twice as many flu outbreaks so far this winter as during the past three years combined, and three times as many people have died in residential-care homes.
About 120 people in Interior care homes and doctor's offices have tested positive for the flu this season.
"But in earlier years, we've had 100, 200 (positive tests) and so on," said Barss. "(This year) is somewhat more than the average, but not excessively above."
An outbreak is defined as two or more cases in one facility. Three other residential-care homes in Kelowna reported outbreaks before the latest surge, but those outbreaks are now over.
Before the Christmas break, schools in Penticton and Vernon reported more than 10 per cent of students were absent due to respiratory infections. No Okanagan school has reported an outbreak since the break ended, said Barss.
The health authority has stopped short of declaring the outbreak a public health hazard, which Fraser Health has done. If it did, visitors to care homes would have to wear a mask and wash their hands if they hadn't had a flu shot.
"This year, the number of deaths we're seeing is about the same in proportion to the number of outbreaks," said senior medical health officer Dr. Andrew Larder in a statement.
"This year, we've had six deaths in residential-care residences. Last year, with about one-third of the outbreaks reported, we had one death."
Barss said this year's strain isn't necessarily more virulent. Still, it appears to be more pervasive. He encourages people to get the flu shot if they haven't already since four to six weeks remain in the flu season.
"I understand the vaccine contains the appropriate strain of virus and seems to be protective," he said. "If people are worried, particularly older people or people with heart or lung or chronic conditions, they should get immunized."
Call the public health unit and make an appointment. Meanwhile, wash your hands, don't cough in other people's faces, stay home if you're sick and avoid crowded places, Barss said.