Health officials say the flu in on its way to the Berkshires.
Update: BMC and Fairview temporarily changed their visiting policy on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, because of an increase in flu-like illness.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — So far, the flu has not hit Berkshire County, but hospital officials are expecting it to get here soon.
As of Thursday, North Adams Regional Hospital had had only three cases of laboratory-confirmed flu for the season, with none being admitted, while Berkshire Medical Center has seen three positive tests, one being admitted.
The numbers are significantly lower than this time last year when North Adams had 46 cases and Berkshire Medical had 118.
"Compared to last year, we have be light so far," NARH infection preventionist Michael Raczynski said on Thursday. "Statewide there has been a bit more. There is a lot of the flu out there but it just hasn't hit us yet."
Raczynski said numbers of cases provided by other hospitals and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicate this year's strain of flu is on the way.
The CDC has recently upgraded the state's classification to "widespread" and the same for New York and Connecticut. A total of 25 states are listed as "widespread" and nationwide six people have died from influenza.
"As a region, we're not there yet but we've been on the upswing," Razcynski said. "I do expect to see more cases before the season ends."
Razcynski says he doesn't expect it to get hit nearly as hard as last year when 171 people nationwide died from the virus. But he is still encouraging residents to get their flu shots, practice good hand hygiene and to avoid others if they start to come down with it. Berkshire Medical Center is saying the same.
"I know the flu season is escalating in many other sections of the country right now, but at this point we are not seeing many cases locally," said BMC spokesman Michael Leary. "We recommend that those who have not yet received the flu vaccine do so, as it helps to protect you personally from the flu, and greatly aids in keeping flu transmission lower in our community."
Leary said this year's vaccination has been a "good match" to strains of the flu that are currently spreading. While that won't 100 percent protect someone from getting it, it does greatly enhance the chances of avoiding it.
Current strains of H1N1 and H3N2 are spreading throughout the country with H1N1 being dominant.
Washing your hands and getting a flu shot are the best ways to prevent getting the flu.
"That, of course, doesn't mean you cannot get the flu even if you’re vaccinated, as there are many strains of influenza, but the vaccine will significantly reduce the likelihood of getting the flu," Leary said. "Another recommendation we would make is to regularly wash your hands, as hand hygiene is critical in helping to prevent transmission of the flu and other viruses."
Last year, both a stomach bug and a strong, wide-spreading flu hit the county so hard that hospitals restricted visitation to help prevent its transmission. The hospitals aren't doing that yet this year but are encouraging anyone with flu-like symptoms to avoid visiting hospitalized relatives until it passes.
"I always recommend that if someone is coming to visit a patient that they don't come if they have flu-like symptoms," Razcynski said.
Razcynski added that 94 percent of hospital staff and volunteers at the hospital have gotten the flu shot, which is the most they've seen. He says "it's not too late," to get it to help keep those case numbers down.
While the flu may not be a major issue right now, what area hospitals are seeing is gastrointestinal viruses — better known as the "stomach bug." Razcynski said that while there is no vaccination for that, hand hygiene is still the best way to prevent it spreading.
"Wash your hands. It does wonders to stop illnesses," he said.
The flu season typically peaks in January and February and wanes by March. Razcynski said it is coming to Berkshire County late whereas last year, it was early.