The worst flu season this decade in Washington state is showing signs of subsiding.
The number of statewide flu-related deaths stood at 207 as of Feb. 11, according to the most recent report from the Department of Health.
That far surpasses the 2014-15 season’s total of 157 statewide deaths.
The vast majority of this season’s deaths involved seniors with underlying conditions such as heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes. Snohomish County reported the median age for its 36 flu-related deaths was 82 years old; all had underlying conditions, according to the Snohomish Health District.
“It looks like we peaked in late January and have been declining since then,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County. “It’s definitely been a bad season.”
King County leads the state with 55 flu-related deaths in the latest state data, followed by Pierce County with 41. Thurston County has had 10 deaths.
Deaths are just one indicator of the season’s severity, Duchin said. Hospitalizations for flu have been trending downward in King County and elsewhere.
The number of hospitalizations in Pierce County peaked at 100 the first week of January and was down to 17 for the week ending Feb. 11, according to the Health Department.
Snohomish County has seen a record number of flu-related hospitalizations, 419, this season. Those also peaked in early January and have dropped dramatically. “It appears we are starting to get more in line with ‘normal’ flu seasons,” said Heather Thomas, spokeswoman for the Snohomish Health District.
Data suggest the flu has dropped below the epidemic threshold.
This season’s flu vaccine was considered well-matched to the predominant virus family known as H3N2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, that as of Feb. 4, the vaccine had been 48 percent effective in preventing flu-related medical visits across all age groups.
Flu vaccines are actually a combination of up to four vaccines, Duchin said. “When we talk about a vaccine match, we’re talking about whether the circulating virus looks like the one in the vaccine. It still doesn’t always correlate to a great match.”
The vaccine is grown in chicken eggs with pieces of protein from flu viruses, Duchin said. It can change slightly from the circulating virus while growing.
Another factor is the way individuals respond to the flu and the vaccine. “The fact is, older people don’t respond as well to the vaccine,” Duchin said. And that’s the group hit hardest in terms of deaths and hospitalizations.
While hospital visits are trending downward in King County, Duchin said a second wave is possible, propelled by another strain that typically comes in February and March.
It’s best to be vaccinated before the season, but the vaccine still can provide some protection, Duchin said. “Getting vaccinated now is perfectly reasonable if you want to do everything possible. You can still get some protection.”
And Duchin reminded those with the flu that they can protect others with good hygiene, covering their coughing and staying away from others when sick, particularly children, pregnant women and seniors.
News Tribune staff contributed to this report.