The H1N1 virus needs no introduction in the Martell household. Beginning with a few sniffles and sore throats a week ago Friday, the virulent flu strain quickly overwhelmed all seven children and both parents.
“It just swept through nine people instantly,” said Bill Martell, 38, the Jacksonville family’s seasoned patriarch. He and his wife consider raising children “our thing.” Still, he said, “I’ve had sick kids throwing up with fevers, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Neither has Northeast Florida.
The swine flu is already radiating across the First Coast, four months ahead of when doctors usually see the peak in flu-like illnesses. In other words, it is shaping up to be the earliest onset of flu season in recent memory, health officials say.
That’s bad news for everyone, but especially those on the front lines like Mobeen Rathore, head of immunology at Shands Jacksonville. The hospital, like many others, has placed restrictions on patients’ visitors to keep the virus from spreading within its walls.
That means no children 5 and under or people with flu-like symptoms in patient areas. Want a priest to pray for you at your bedside? Not if he’s sick. Coughing and sneezing members of the clergy are specifically mentioned in the prohibition.
“What we know is it seems to spread more efficiently than seasonal flu,” Rathore said of the H1N1 cases he has witnessed. “It looks like it’s maybe more contagious,” particularly among younger people, who don’t seem to have any immunity to it.
Duval and St. Johns counties were among five Florida counties where the flu had reached “widespread” proportions during the week of Aug. 23-29, according to the Florida Department of Health. The others: Hillsborough, Orange and Sarasota. Both Northeast Florida hot spots failed to report their status the following week, the most recent available on the department’s Web site.
Taj Azarian, the Duval County Health Department’s surveillance coordinator, said it’s too early to say whether the outbreak will get worse or how it will be affected when — or if — the seasonal flu arrives. What is known: It was already circulating at an unseasonably high rate when schools opened a couple weeks ago, providing ideal conditions for the virus to spread.
“We’ve never had a virus spreading at this level when we’ve come into the school year,” he said. “Usually in early October, November we start getting our first cases.”
So far, no schools have closed, despite some reports of swine flu cases. That is a change from last spring, when a single case prompted the OakLeaf School in northern Clay County to close for two days.
The swine flu has sickened thousands nationwide since emerging last April. In the Jacksonville area, illnesses remained sporadic until recently. The infection’s initial lack of a solid footing here may explain why it is jumping from one person to another with such ease now, Azarian said.
The virus appears as mild as the regular flu in the vast majority of cases. Reflecting that growing understanding, the World Health Organization recently announced that doctors should prescribe antiviral medications like Tamiflu only to the old, young and pregnant.
But, like the regular flu, H1N1 can be severe, even deadly. Statewide, 670 people have been hospitalized, including 35 in Northeast Florida. Of those, 29 have come from Duval, by far the most populous county.
The state’s death toll: 78, including six in Duval and one in Clay.
Nearly one out of five of the Florida deaths have been among people under 25 years old, a statistic that mirrors the trend internationally. That has forced health officials for the first time to consider young adults as a high-risk group.
A vaccine for the regular flu has been making the rounds since the start of this month, but a swine flu shot won’t be ready until mid-October, health officials say. The good news: It looks like for many people, one shot will be enough, instead of two as scientists first suspected.
All the attention about flu season, though, may be having a good side effect.
At the Walgreens on Sadler Road in Fernandina Beach, the number of people seeking flu shots averages about 20 a day, said pharmacy manager Mandy Clark. Many came before Sept. 1, before they were eligible to receive insurance coverage for the shot.
“That tells me people are a little more educated this year and looking out to stay healthy … whereas normally people are in a hurry and don’t get them,” Clark said.
As for the Martells, life is getting back to normal. All that remains from their week of misery are pale faces and droopy eyelids.
Asked what the ordeal taught him, parent Bill said, “Be more cautious, especially in school. Everything they’re saying on the news: Keep your hands clean.”