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Clinical nurse specialist Susan Lilly dons a mask as she would if she were going to care for a patient with severe flu symptoms in January at CHI St. Elizabeth.

The stubborn flu — which has been hanging around weeks longer than in normal years — appears to be loosening its grip.

Flu numbers in Nebraska continue to drop, though very slowly, giving the state's epidemiologist “some degree of optimism.”

But the flu hasn’t retreated entirely, so many people "will wake up Monday morning and feel like they've been hit by a truck,” said Dr. Tom Safranek, offering his persistent advice to wash your hands, cough into your sleeve and stay away from sick people.

For several weeks in late February, Nebraska and Lincoln appeared to be at the epicenter of the nationwide flu epidemic, based on data collected by two private companies.

Nebraska was tied with Iowa and Missouri for sickest state in the country, with about 5.4 percent of the population — roughly 100,000 people — experiencing flu-like symptoms on the week ending Feb. 24, based on the data from Kinsa, a company that sells smart thermometers and tracks data from people using those thermometers.

And Lincoln was the sickest city in the state that week, with 5.5 percent of the population experiencing flu-like symptoms, according to the Kinsa data.

Nebraska and Lincoln were also ranked at the top nationally for flu activity for the week ending March 3, under the Walgreens Flu Index.

That index is compiled using weekly retail prescription data for antiviral medications used to treat influenza.

Lincoln and Hastings-Kearney, as a region, were listed No. 1 in the top 10 communities nationally for flu activity. And Nebraska was the No. 1 state, followed by Oklahoma and Wyoming in the Walgreens report.

Safranek cautioned about the studies.

The companies haven’t articulated their methodologies or market penetration, he said. This might be just a “bit of a publicity grab by non-professionals who don’t do this for a living." 

Nebraska’s rise to the top in the Kinsa report came at a time when flu numbers nationally were starting to drop.

The Kinsa report uses data from more than 1 million smart-thermometer users. This data tracks the spread of influenza-like illnesses, according to the company. 

The data includes the temperature, pulled automatically from the smart thermometers, and other information on symptoms supplied by users, according a company spokeswoman.  

The Walgreens index does not measure actual levels or severity of flu activity. It provides information about which cities or regions are experiencing the most incidence of influenza each week.

Safranek said he invited the president of Kinsa to meetings where national experts look for better ways to track the flu. “He said he would welcome the opportunity.”

In Nebraska, flu activity is still fairly high. But there's been a fairly dramatic drop in influenza A and a slow drop in influenza B, Safranek said.

“For us (epidemiologists) that means something. B is not as virulent. It doesn’t make you as sick. It doesn’t get you into the hospital as often or cause fatalities as often."

But the sickened person still feels bad. And both versions of the flu are treated by Tamaflu, he said.

Tim Timmons, with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, isn’t ready to say the county's flu activity has peaked.

Doctor-visit rates, positivity rates and hospitalization rates were down for the week ending March 3. But Timmons said he wants to have two weeks of decline before pointing to a peak. 

“I have to believe we are starting on a decline, but we don’t have good numbers yet."

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On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.


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