COLUMBUS — Peak flu season appears to have arrived in Ohio after a month of steady increases, but the window to get vaccinated is still open, doctors say.

“The only time it’s too late is when the vaccine is gone,” said Dr. Matthew Washam, director of epidemiology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

The number of new flu-associated hospitalizations in the state in the week of Feb. 17-23 increased 18 percent to 630 from 534 the previous week, according to the most-recent available data from the state health department.

Those numbers are significantly lower than the 1,059 new hospitalizations in the same week last year, but they’re higher than the five-year average of nearly 500.

Summit County reported 49 influenza-associated hospitalizations Feb. 17-23, an increase from 38 the previous week

On Feb. 19, a 10-year-old girl from Warren County, near Cincinnati, became the third Ohio child to die this season from the flu. That is one fewer than at the same point last year.

Last winter was the nation’s deadliest flu season in more than four decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This year’s peak flu season comes a few weeks later than last year’s, but “late February or early March isn’t unusual,” Columbus health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said.

“The flu is a virus, and it spreads through the community at different times,” she said. “It’s hard to say why.”

Because the peak is happening later, spring break plans could be spoiled by the flu, Roberts added.

“Flu activity is widespread almost everywhere in the United States,” she said. “It’s not just Ohio. So if you’re leaving Ohio and going someplace warmer, I would strongly encourage you to get vaccinated now if you have not already.”

Even if a vaccinated person still gets the flu, the vaccine can reduce the severity of the infection, Washam said.

It’s also important to take precautions about spreading germs, Roberts said. That means washing your hands before you eat or touch your eyes or nose, she said. And if you’re sneezing and coughing, do so into your elbow or fabric — not your hands.

Most important: “If you’re not feeling well, don’t go to work, don’t go to church or send your kid to school,” she said. “It’s important to stay home and away from other people if you’re sick.”

 

Reach Kevin Stankiewicz at kstankiewicz@dispatch.com or @kevin_stank.