A box of tissues is shown placed next to two tissues on a white counter.
Reach for the hand sanitizer and stock up on tissues. Viruses are making their rounds. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The recent rise in calls to the Spectrum Health app tells the story about this year’s flu season: The contagious respiratory virus is on the move in Michigan.

“We have been very busy and we are starting to see a lot more flu,” said physician assistant Elizabeth Suing, PA-C. “That has definitely ramped up in the last week or so.”

Suing encouraged patients to seek prompt medical care if they experience flu symptoms.

“Most patients start with a pretty high fever,” she said. “At 2, they may feel fine. And at 2:30, suddenly they feel terrible—high fever, headache and body aches.”

Congestion, coughs and other upper respiratory symptoms often soon follow.

“Getting seen within 48 hours of symptoms is important because that’s the window in which we can give (the antiviral medication) Tamiflu for influenza,” Suing said.

Tamiflu, when taken early enough, has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms and may prevent some secondary infections or the need for hospitalization.

It’s also not too late to get a flu vaccine, she added.

“Do it soon, though,” she said. “Typically, it takes two weeks to be effective. The sooner you get it, the better.”

She recommended the vaccine even to those who have had the flu, once they have recovered from their illness.

“Just because you got flu once this season doesn’t mean you can’t get it again,” she said. “You can get a different strain of it.”

Most of the flu cases so far this year have been caused by a B strain of the virus. Based on past flu seasons, she said that strain may wane and be replaced by an A strain of the virus.

And even if the vaccine does not match the virus making its rounds, it can still carry benefits.

The flu vaccine is typically 40-60% effective in matching the circulating strains of influenza, she said. But it’s beneficial even for those who end up getting the flu.

“The flu vaccine will shorten the duration of your symptoms and your symptoms will be less severe than if you didn’t have the vaccine,” she said.

Michigan and most other states reported widespread flu activity as of the first of January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, 32 children have died of the flu this season, including two in Michigan.

From November to December 2019, the Spectrum Health app has tracked 3,500 patient encounters, and 48% of them have been flu related. The program recorded a daily high volume, with 136 patients seen on Dec. 27, 2019.

Telemedicine visits

In addition to the flu, the Spectrum Health app has fielded a number of calls recently about colds, strep throat and pink eye.

Suing encouraged patients with flu and cold symptoms to consider seeking help through a telemedicine visit.

“It’s a great alternative for patients with the flu,” she said. “You don’t feel terrific. You don’t want to sit in an urgent care or waiting room. You don’t want to spread the flu and you don’t want to catch something else while you’re waiting.”

Through the Spectrum Health app, providers meet patients in on-demand video visits, scheduled through a smart device app.

“We can see you where you are—if you are at work, or at home or lying in your bed,” Suing said. “We can see the whole family, as long as you are over 3 years old.”

The providers, who include nurse practitioners, physician assistants and physicians, perform a virtual version of a physical exam. They discuss symptoms and examine the eyes and throat and listen to a patient’s breathing.

“Based on those factors, we can prescribe medicine as needed,” Suing said.

The service costs $45, though many insurers cover the fee or part of it, she said.

And if patients have more severe illness, the providers refer them to an urgent care center or emergency department, Suing said.

In that case, the Spectrum Health app visit is free of charge.