With reported flu cases in Virginia ticking up, a less common 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, respiratory disease coordinator for the health department. “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 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials said type B is generally more common in children, though not exactly more severe. It also means that people over 65 who are usually susceptible to the flu might not catch it this year.
Scott Pauley, a spokesman for the CDC, said it’s the first time since the 1992-1993 flu season that 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 sometime 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 has been increasing in the Richmond area over 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 that the spread of the flu here is not intense.
In the Richmond area for 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 the Virginia Department of Health 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 2019-2020 flu season, there have been 255 reported pneumonia and influenza-associated deaths reported by the state health agency. There have been no reported pediatric deaths yet this season.
The CDC estimates there have been 2,100 deaths from the flu nationally this season.