A nightmare flu season finally comes to end

April 25, 2018

A Coweta County father was carefully restoring a black-on-black 1964 Ford Falcon convertible to give his daughter as a surprise for her 16th birthday.

Instead, Marino Molina had to sell the car to help pay for her funeral.

He’s still stunned that one day in late January, his daughter, Kira, was upbeat and had just passed a physical to play tennis. A few days later, the 10th-grader with a sweet smile and a love of animals was dead from complications from the flu.

Kira Molina, a 15-year-old teen from Newnan, died in January of flu-related illness. FACEBOOK PHOTO Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The flu. An illness associated with fevers, chills, staying in bed, sipping chicken soup. Every year, people get the flu. Recovery may take a few days or a week, but most people do get better.

However, this season — which has finally subsided — was particularly harsh. Kira was part of a sobering statistic during a singular flu season — 145 dead in Georgia and 3,037 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta. According to local health officials, this was the worst outbreak in decades.

“I had the flu many times,” said Molina, his voice breaking. “This had to be some kind of mutation. You don’t think anyone will die from the flu.”

His daughter didn’t get the flu shot, but he didn’t press it because neither did he. Many of his friends who got the shot ended up getting sick anyway. One was in the hospital for a week.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been covering the toll on families and the pressure on hospitals throughout the season. Flu activity in Georgia finally dropped to low intensity throughout the state, according to the most recent flu report for the week ending April 14. Only two people were hospitalized in metro Atlanta during that time period. 

In this file photo, Grady Memorial Hospital chief of emergency medicine Dr. Hany Atallah (right) speaks with Sheryl Heron, vice chair of administrative affairs in the department of emergency medicine, inside Carolinas MED-1, a mobile medical facility located outside of the Marcus trauma and emergency room at Grady. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

“This was the worst season I have ever seen in Georgia, and I have been doing this for 20 years,” said Dr. Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist with the Georgia Department of Public Health. “From my perspective, this flu season is a really stark and somber reminder the flu is very unpredictable.”

Each year, on average, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, tens of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from flu-related illness. This costs an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and an additional $16.3 billion in lost earnings annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Georgia, there were record-breaking hospitalizations for the flu in metro Atlanta this past season. The death toll of 145 people in Georgia included four children ages 5-17; 15 were ages 18-51; 25 were ages 51-64; and 101 were people 65 and over. The number of flu-related deaths is expected to rise over the coming weeks as more reports are sent to the health department.

Last season, there was a total of nine flu-related deaths in the state.

The battle over flu shots

This current flu season started early, in November. Then, by early January, the flu appeared to be pummeling almost every state in the country at the same time — giving the CDC’s flu map a stark, uniform look.

The predominant flu strain is H3N2, a form of influenza A. Doctors dread this strain because although it’s been around for decades, this flu strain is associated with more severe illness, especially among children and the elderly. Flu vaccines also tend to be less effective against H3N2 than other strains.

This season’s vaccine has been only about 36 percent effective against both A and B virus strains, according to the CDC. But experts say even if the vaccine provides just partial protection, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications.

Getting Americans to get a flu shot annually is a tough sell. Americans, in general, don’t like getting it, and when vaccines on the market provide limited protection, many people decide it’s not worth it. And then there are myths — some Americans (incorrectly) think you can catch the flu from the vaccine.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

About half of Americans get flu shots each year, according to the CDC. In recent years, flu vaccination rates have been on the rise, particularly among children, and now stand at about 60 percent for children, up from about 44 percent during the 2009-10 season. For adults, the vaccination rate has remained steady at about 42 percent, up from 40 percent during the same time period.

Calls for a universal flu vaccine rose this past season as the severe season ravaged the nation. (Read more about a universal flu vaccine in the section below story.)

One person who has avoided flu shots is Buckhead retiree G. Morgan Timmis, who has never taken the flu shot — and has never gotten the flu.

Despite the number of hospitalizations and deaths during this flu outbreak, she has no plans on getting a flu shot.

“I hate shots and avoid them at all costs,” she said. “I can, perhaps, foresee changing my mind as I age further and my doctor insists. But, until then … Nope!”

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t careful, though.

“I have to say I was a bit more concerned, so I made sure to wash my hands more frequently and stayed clear of big crowds to some extent,” she said.

Local Catholic churches even encouraged parishioners to stay home if they had the flu. In a letter to churches, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory advised those with flu-like symptoms not “to attend Sunday Mass (or other parish activities), partake from the chalice or participate in the exchange of the Sign of Peace.”

And in Ocilla, Irwin County Elementary School closed for two days because of the large number of teachers who were sick with the flu.

RELATED: Have the flu? Atlanta archbishop advises ill Catholics to skip Mass

In this file photo, nurse Kristy Haynes (right) shows resident nurse Brittany Evans around Carolinas MED-1, a mobile medical facility located outside of the Marcus trauma and emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Grappling with a deadly season

At the height of the flu outbreak, waiting rooms were swamped at hospitals here and across the country. For the first time, Grady Memorial Hospital set up a mobile emergency department outside to help handle flu patients.

Some days, the number of patients exceeded 500 in the emergency department, said Dr. Hany Atallah, chief of emergency medicine at Grady.

“When it got over 500, we stopped counting,” he said. “It became a common occurrence. It was really tough.”

For many patients who tested positive for influenza, they also developed pneumonia, particularly older patients.

He said many of the patients did not get the vaccine. “If someone says you can take the shot and have a 30 percent chance of not catching the flu, even though that’s not very effective, it’s better than zero,” he said.

Dr. Brett Cannon, chief of emergency medicine at WellStar Health System in Marietta, said the length and severity of a flu season are difficult to predict. One reason is because flu strains change from year to year.

The volume of flu activity and severity of illness — number of hospitalizations — dwarf any year since Georgia’s current flu surveillance system was started in 2009. Another severe year was during 2009-10 H1N1 “swine flu” epidemic, but the death toll this season doubles that season.

RELATED: Flu hospitalizations in metro Atlanta reach record high

Officials often look to Australia, where the flu season begins during our summer and their winter, for clues on what to expect for flu in the United States. And there were indications the flu vaccine was not highly effective for the predominant strain.

Even so, Cannon and other doctors said getting a flu shot remains on top of the list of what steps to take to protect you and your family.

The interior of Carolinas MED-1, a mobile medical facility parked outside Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, before it started up at the end of January. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

‘He had never been sick before’

This past winter, Winston G. Whitlow, 63, a LaGrange businessman, was in perfect health, said his wife of 30 years, Judy.

On Feb. 7 , though, Whitlow, co-owner of JSP Audio and JobShop Productions in LaGrange, complained about a sinus headache that wouldn’t go away. He took over-the-counter medications, but things got worse. Soon he was running a fever and was lethargic.

“It was alarming because he didn’t want to leave the house,” said Judy Whitlow. “He had never been sick before. He had never spent one night in a hospital. He took a vitamin every morning.”

On Feb. 11, he woke his wife and asked her to take him to the emergency room.

He hadn’t taken the flu shot. Never had.

This time was different. His oxygen level was low. A swab came back positive for influenza B. A chest X-ray was clear.

Doctors sent him home with Tamiflu, Motrin and steroids to help him breathe.

He didn’t get better. This time, he had nausea. Maybe the medicine just needed time to work.

Winston Whitlow (center) died of complications of the flu in February. CONTRIBUTED BY FAMILY

At 2 a.m. Feb. 12, Judy Whitlow felt a tug on her foot. It was her husband. He seemed in “dire straits.” He was breathing so rapidly that he couldn’t really talk. There was pain in his chest and stomach.

He needed to go back to the emergency department. Fast.

Tests showed pneumonia in both lungs and a bacterial infection.

He was in the process of being airlifted from WellStar West Georgia Medical Center in LaGrange to a hospital in Marietta when he went into cardiac arrest.

Meanwhile, Judy Whitlow and her daughters and a few friends sped toward Marietta. They had gotten to Old National Highway when her cellphone rang.

It was the ICU nurse back in LaGrange, who said he had coded on the helicopter. Fear rippled through her body.

Whitlow said she thought the helicopter was continuing to Marietta. The helicopter, instead, had turned around and took him back to the first hospital. His wife later learned his heart stopped four more times in the hospital.

They reached the hospital in Marietta and were standing at the security desk when her phone rang again.

He didn’t make it.

“That moment, one daughter hit the floor, one went off on her own. I just sat down in the chair,” Judy Whitlow said. “We all just kind of lost it at that moment. I just thought how is all of this happening to a healthy person.”

The flu.

Two months later, Whitlow still asks: How did things go so wrong?

Shown here, Simone Groper prepares to receive a flu shot this season at a Walgreens pharmacy in San Francisco. (PHOTO by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)