Utah experiences lower influenza activity than most other states

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Editor’s Note: This story pairs with “Flu vaccines help protect BYU from illness”

This year’s strain of influenza has been causing alarm across the country because of its high infection rate and the severity of its symptoms. However, Utah is one of the states with the lowest rate of reported flu activity this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data collected through February 3.

Utah has received a “low” flu activity rating from the CDC according to reports through February third. (Marinda Risk)

Only three other states — North Dakota, Maine and Montana — had similarly low or minimal influenza activity levels, while the rest of the country showed moderate or high activity levels. This is good news for Utah residents who are trying to stay healthy this flu season, which lasts through May, but also raises questions as to why Utah has managed to avoid the full severity of this year’s seasonal flu.

BYU health science professor Chantel Sloan said studies have shown warmer temperatures and high humidity levels inhibit the flu.

“We’ve had a weird warm winter, and that influences influenza rates,” Sloan said. “Colloquially, people say when it’s colder outside people go indoors more and pass it to each other, which might be one reason, but it seems that higher temperatures and humidity levels impact the virus’s ability to transmit in the air. So we can have these temperature swings that can enhance or mitigate the flu.”

Flu activity levels in Utah have been lower on average this season than in the previous three years, according to the Utah Department of Health website. But hospitalization numbers for the flu in Utah have been higher on average this season than in previous years, particularly for people ages 65 and older. People are still catching the flu throughout Utah, despite the lower flu activity rate compared to other states.

According to the CDC website, the flu virus can spread distances up to six feet away when an infected person coughs, talks or sneezes. An infected person can spread the flu for up to one day before they show symptoms and up to seven days after becoming sick. The CDC recommends that anyone who has a fever associated with influenza stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone.

Second year BYU Law student Danica Baird came down with influenza in January and developed bronchitis as a complication from her illness. She began coughing and feeling nauseous and feverish while traveling in a plane. Her doctor told her she likely caught the flu from other passengers since the air on planes is recycled.

Baird had the flu for two and half weeks and bronchitis for two weeks. She did not receive a flu vaccine, and her doctor told her that the vaccine would have made her less likely to develop any secondary illness like bronchitis. The physical strain of the illness negatively impacted Baird’s schoolwork.

“At law school, unless you’re dying, you do not miss class. So I sat in my classes with a mask on, hacking up a lung, and people were throwing cough drops at me. I said, ‘Sorry, cough drops won’t help,’ and I also got sick right before I was going to give speeches,” Baird said. “So I just went to class and the rest of the time I stayed in bed feeling miserable.”

Six weeks after Baird got sick, she was still behind on schoolwork and suffered from abnormally low energy despite recovering from her illnesses a few weeks previous.

Sloan advised students and professors to take sicknesses like the flu seriously and not ignore their symptoms. However, Baird and other students still feel pressured to go to school while sick because of class policies and expectations.

“If you are sick with symptoms of the flu or any kind of contagious illness, please stay home,” Sloan said.

She also suggested students protect themselves from the flu by washing their hands with soap and water often.

“Purell works too, but soap and water is better,” Sloan said. “If you’re not normally a person who worries about being hyper-vigilant when it comes to germs, for the next few weeks you should worry about it.”

Sloan has implemented class policies consistent with her stance that sick students should stay home. She teaches an infectious disease prevention course and said she and her students need to “practice what they preach.”

Sloan said she also hopes BYU’s faculty members will take similar precautions to help mitigate the spread of the flu by exempting sick students from attending class.

“I hope we as a campus can realize that protecting the health of faculty and students is more important than a student happening to be in class on a particular day,” Sloan said.

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