PITTSFIELD -- The number of confirmed cases of influenza in Western Massachusetts is 17 times higher than it was at this time last year, according to state health data.
Across Berkshire County, the flu -- which has arrived sooner than usual and harder -- is leading to higher absenteeism at local schools, spikes in emergency room visits, and visitation restrictions at hospitals.
With 313 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu, Western Massachusetts hasn't been struck as hard as greater Boston, which has about 700 cases and is under a public health emergency. Statewide, the number of cases is 6,000. The number of cases is expected to grow over the next several weeks. Many more go unreported.
Last year, there were 18 confirmed cases at this time in Western Massachusetts. Flu season typically isn't evident until February.
Berkshire County's three hospitals report 199 confirmed cases of the flu.
Public health officials are pushing flu shots to stave off the unusually virulent strain that's hitting patients hard.
Berkshire County hospital officials report no local deaths as a result of the flu, but the Department of Public Health says there have been 18 flu-related deaths statewide.
"This year is probably the harshest I can think of as far as visits go, but I don't have any numbers to back that up," said Mike Raczynski, an infectious disease specialist at North Adams Regional Hospital.
Patients "seem to be sicker than last year or the year before," Raczynski said.
Nurse Leader Joan Roy said that absenteeism at Pittsfield Public Schools is "varying from school to school." Pittsfield caters to more than 6,000 students. Administrators are being asked to track the numbers of staff and students who are ill.
"As of right now, we're somewhat spared what happened in Boston. We are at heightened alert," said Roy.
Representatives from Berkshire County's three regional hospitals all report significantly higher levels of laboratory-confirmed flu cases. Many more are suspected of having the flu, but there have been 46 confirmed cases at North Adams and 118 at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield since Dec. 1.
BMC spokesman Michael Leary said there have been eight flu admissions since the start of this year. Last year, there was only one confirmed case and no hospital admissions.
There were 40 laboratory-confirmed community reported cases surrounding Fairview Hospital in South Berkshire County, Gerry McQuoid, director of infection prevention and control. There has been a 30 percent spike in the number of emergency room visits in the last month, McQuoid said.
Elderly individuals with respiratory problems, which can be exasperated by flu-like symptoms, were the primary individuals seeking care, McQuoid said.
McQuoid added that there has been a higher number of employees reporting sick.
"Because we haven't had a consistent temperature above freezing, we not only have more viruses but also bacteria that [haven't] been killed because of temperatures that are consistently below freezing," McQuoid said.
The flu outbreak has local hospitals taking extra precautions.
Raczynski said that North Adams Regional will put in place the visitation restrictions last used when the H1N1 influenza flu virus strain hit the nation.
Patients will be limited to seeing two visitors at one time in most cases, he said. There will limitations on visits from children under 14 and people with flu-like symptoms will be restricted from visiting patients.
The restrictions would take effect Wednesday.
"When the flu goes down, we will revisit the visitation [restrictions]," Raczynski said.
At Fairview Hospital, signs are being posted around the hospital that the flu season has hit Massachusetts early. Individuals with flu-like symptoms might be asked to wait at a separate section of hospital.
Individuals under 18, who are more prone to flu, will be restricted from care stations and waiting rooms.
Leary, of Berkshire Medical Center, said that anyone who is sick is advised to stay away from patients, but a formal policy will not restrict access to patients.
State officials are offering reassurances that there is plenty of vaccine still available for people who are still looking to get a flu shot, The Associated Press reported on Thursday. Interim public health commissioner Lauren Smith said Thursday the state has distributed 760,000 doses of vaccine so far this season, and there remains ample supply. She said officials are working with local boards of health that are looking to open public clinics to meet the demand for flu shots.
Upcoming flu clinics
The Hillcrest Campus at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield
Date: Jan. 18
Time: Noon to 3 p.m.
The Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association will be holding a community flu vaccine clinic. The event is open to all adults 18 years and older. Medicare or Medicaid (MassHealth) participants should bring their health card for a free flu shot. All others will be charged a $30 fee.
North Adams Regional Hospital
Date: Jan. 11
Time: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Northern Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association will be holding a community clinic. The event is open to all individuals 18 years and older. There will be no charge, but donations will be accepted.
Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington
Date: Feb. 1
Time: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
For additional information, call Berkshire South Regional Community Center at (413) 528-2810.
Is it a cold or flu?
COLDS: Usual symptoms include stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and sneezing. Coughs are hacking and productive. It's unusual to have fever, chills, headaches and body aches, and if they do occur, they are mild.
FLU: Fever is usually present, along with chills, headache and moderate-to-severe body aches and tiredness. Symptoms can come on rapidly, within three to six hours. Coughs are dry and unproductive, and sore throats are less common.
Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; AP