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Flu season ends, local healthcare options still a concern

flu meds
Over the counter medications to fight cold, flu and allergy symptoms are in most household medicine cabinets. Photo by Marlana Ward

By Marlana Ward
Freelance Writer

Out of 95 counties in Tennessee, Johnson County ranks 77th in health outcomes.

Each year, many Americans are stricken with flu-like symptoms during the winter season. The virus spreads across the country and families worry for those afflicted and await the virus’ eventual decline, which seems to coincide with spring’s arrival.

For many though, the arrival of spring brings about new aggravation as allergy season begins and a new cycle of respiratory issues ensues.

Health officials have used data reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine that this year’s flu season is finally on the decline though not at the normal rate. According to the CDC’s website: “17 states continue to report widespread flu activity, and six states continue to experience high influenza-like illness levels. Hospitalization rates are higher than the end-of-season hospitalization rates for 2014-2015, a high severity, H3N2-predominant season. Flu activity is likely to remain elevated for a number of weeks.”

During the week of March 10, the northeast Tennessee region reported 277 patients with flu-like symptoms, a number which is high when compared to other parts of the state. Dr. David Kirschke, Regional Medical Director for Northeast Tennessee’s Department of Health, shared that reports can only track patients who seek care for flu-like symptoms and cannot adequately detail the virus itself but that current numbers show the flu is on the decline in our area. “The peak is over, at least in Tennessee,” said Kirschke. “However, there is still some flu circulating.”

As hospitals, assisted living centers, and schools all begin to operate with fewer worries of flu outbreaks, doctor’s offices and pharmacies will soon be flooded with individuals seeking relief from seasonal allergy problems. The CDC reports that over the past year, 7.4 million Americans have reported respiratory symptoms related to seasonal allergies or hay fever.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, common symptoms of seasonal allergies or hay fever include: runny nose and nasal congestion; watery, itchy, red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis); sneezing; cough; itchy nose, roof of mouth, or throat; swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes (allergic shiners); postnasal drip; or fatigue.

Unlike the common cold, which is over in about seven days, allergies begin immediately upon exposure to stimuli and symptoms continue for the duration of exposure.

Common causes of allergic responses during the spring include pollen, microscopic insects, and spores from fungi and mold, which become prevalent during the warmer spring temperatures.
For the relief of allergy symptoms, the Mayo Clinic recommends that limiting exposure is the best defense.

During peak pollen seasons, the clinic suggests keeping doors and windows closed, not hanging laundry outside, using an air conditioner to filter the outside air passing into your home.

Avoiding outdoor activity during the early morning hours when pollen counts are at their highest, using a dehumidifier to reduce indoor humidity, using a HEPA filter in rooms occupied for long intervals, avoid raking leaves or grass, and wearing a dust mask while cleaning your home or gardening is also recommended.

Whether symptoms are caused by the flu, allergies, or other illness, the people of Johnson County are at a disadvantage from their neighbors throughout the state.

The University of Wisconsin’s compilation of health reports for the state of Tennessee (available at countyhealthrankings.org), shows that out of 95 counties, Johnson County ranks 77th in health outcomes. According to the report, 13 percent of the county’s population is uninsured. The county’s ratio of patients to primary care physicians is 2,970 to 1 while the state’s average is 1,380 to 1. When it comes to dentistry, the county’s ratio is 5,920 to 1.

The Johnson County Health Department is one of the local care providers striving to make a difference in the county through wellness initiatives and education through limited means.

Caroline Hurt, Director for the Johnson and Carter County Health Departments, shared what she saw as the major difference in providing care in a rural locale, “In rural communities we are often faced with reaching out over less densely populated areas to conduct our work in smaller group settings for health promotion, or in individual home visits with our home visiting programs such as HUGS and CSS, or we are tasked with developing and fostering unique partnerships with the schools or senior center, as examples, which can provide access to larger target groups of residents.”

The health department provides preventative care and other services to county residents on a daily basis and offers what they can to improve opportunities for care in the area.

“The Johnson County Health Department conducts an average of about 30 patient encounters per day,” explained Hurt. “This is done with a staff of three nurses, three clerical staff, a nutrition educator, a social counselor, a dentist and a dental assistant, and includes both clinical and home-based services as well as vital records services such as birth and death certificates.”

Hurt has personally dealt with the difficulties in recruiting medical professionals to rural areas such as Johnson County. “We had a picture of the extent of the community’s need for dental services so we knew the placement of a provider in terms of need would be supported.

Hurt added that the Johnson County Health Department worked through the National Health Service Corp, securing and maintaining certification as a placement site based on community need, to place ourselves in direct connection with providers who were seeking placement specifically in rural, under-served locations.

“This helped facilitate a good fit between our community as far as its size and location with a provider who sought these same qualities as opposed to a larger more urban environment.”

The ability of the department to seek out a provider who specifically wanted to come to an area and make a difference was of tremendous help as not all who seek work in the medical or dental profession are willing to relocate to rural locations where they may not earn as much money.