Entering peak flu season in the month of February (according to 2016-17 data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment), the Harvey County area has already been hit hard.

Cases of flu-like illness treated at Newton Medical Center skyrocketed in the month of January (with 255 testings at the hospital and clinic), more than quadrupling from the total number seen in the previous two months combined.

"It's definitely a higher amount of positive flu activity this year than it has been in the last couple of years," said NMC Infection Control Coordinator Janie Mosqueda.

Those numbers mirror statewide patterns observed by the KDHE, with a nearly six percent spike in number of visits for influenza-like illness (ILI) this year, according to data from reporting agencies.

With flu cases spiking, Mosqueda noted it has had an impact on employers and the community as a whole. Maybe the most visible evidence of how hard the flu has hit this year is the fact that the nearby Peabody-Burns school district had to close for a day in late January due to 25 percent of the student body being ill.

USD 398 Superintendent Ron Traxson projected about two-thirds of absences were due to influenza, with another one-third attributed to respiratory illness, but as a pattern of spreading sickness began to emerge he decided to take action.

"We were seeing too many kids who were coming back too early. We were seeing too many kids who were hanging on," Traxson said. "I was concerned that when we'd start off the beginning of the day, our numbers (of sick kids) would grow through the day each day."

Traxson projected the flu was brought back en masse by a great number of the student body through an athletic event, which accelerated the spread. Dismissing class for a day (and closing down the schools for the weekend) allowed staff the necessary time to disinfect the buildings through the use of a fogger — with Traxson noting only 10 students were absent once class returned to session the following Monday.

For Traxson, this marked the first time in 27 years he had to cancel classes due to illness. While no other schools in the county have reported such closures, administrators are staying abreast of the situation.

Halstead superintendent Tom Alstrom said that while the number of flu cases are up, it has not threatened a full school closure at this point — though he was quick to point out that absences in general are on the rise this year, and the reasons for those absences is not specified in every case.

Both Alstrom and Burrton Superintendent Joan Simoneau noted where the flu can hit even harder in the schools is among the teacher population — as widespread issues there can put the districts in a bit of a bind.

"Sickness is expensive when we have staff sick," Simoneau said. "We see an increased cost of substitute teachers and the maintenance staff has (to spend) more time cleaning and disinfecting the district."

Good sanitization practices are something Hesston Superintendent Ben Proctor also noted have helped keep schools open in USD 460, from the job done nightly by the maintenance staff from personnel constantly washing hands to parents making sure sick students stay home.

Mosqueda and Harvey County Health Department Director Lynnette Redington also highlighted how sanitary practices can limit the spread of the flu, but there was one step both recommended above that.

"I do want to remind folks that it's still very applicable to come and get your flu vaccination if you haven't. The season is not over. It seems like we may be at the peak, but we won't know that until we start dropping down on cases," Redington said. "We want people to remember they can have better protection if they have their vaccination."

Additionally, both Redington and Mosqueda urged those who are sick to stay home and recover — and seek medical treatment — so as not to expose others. While the county may be seeing high numbers of individuals affected by the flu, there is plenty that can be done to keep those numbers from growing.

For more information on available vaccinations, call the Harvey County Health Department at 283-1637 or NMC at 283-2700.