Oklahoma health officials prepare for flu season

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Following a flu season in which a record number of Oklahomans died as a result of the virus, state and county health officials say educating the public and general common sense are vital to reducing both the death rate and the number of infections.

Becky Coffman, an epidemiologist in the acute disease service division of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said getting a flu shot is key to at least reducing the severity of the virus.

"The most important message is to get the flu vaccine, stay home when you're sick, wash your hands very carefully, cover any cough with your sleeve," such as by coughing into the bend of the elbow, Coffman said.

The strains of flu that are forecast for the coming season, including the H1N1 and the H3N2 viruses, are the same strains that were seen in the state last year, Coffman said.

A flu shot, which is recommended for everyone older than 6-months, can provide protection for a year or more, covering the entire flu season -- considered to be late September through early May, Coffman said

Tiffany Elmore, the administrator of clinical services with the Oklahoma City/County Health Department, said the agency is currently working to determine how many doses of the vaccine to order.

"We like to look at the number of people coming in (in previous years) to determine how many doses to order," Elmore said.

She said the number of flu shots provided during the 2013-14 flu season was not yet available.

In Tulsa County, which had the greatest number of flu-related deaths with 11 during the 2013-14 season, spokeswoman Kaitlin Snider with the Tulsa City/County Health Department said preparations for the coming flu season are just starting.

"We're making plans to get our orders in, and that will probably happen in mid-August," Snider said. "We don't expect much change in the vaccines that will be offered this year from what was offered last year."

Snider said flu vaccinations will probably be offered beginning in early October.

A total of 63 deaths were reported due to influenza during the 2013-14 flu season, nearly doubling the number recorded the previous flu season and breaking the record of 46 deaths recorded in 2009 - the year the state began tracking the statistic.

The reason for the increase was unclear.

"The flu season every year is very unpredictable and you never know who is going to experience flu complications," said Snider.

Coffman noted that the Health Department only in recent years began collecting data on the number of deaths attributed to influenza.

"It might be due to reporting, reporting might have been better last year," she said. "Every year the flu is a little different and people's sensitivity to it is a little bit different every year."

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