Rotorua Hospital's 180 beds were declared full on May 26. Most of the emergency department admissions at the time were due to winter-type illnesses, including bronchiolitis, asthma and influenza. As Samantha Olley reports, the flu has continued to disrupt the city and the wider Lakes DHB area since.
Influenza is tearing through Rotorua, leaving vaccinators out of stock, classrooms bare and hospital beds packed.
The number of positive flu results recorded in the Lakes District Health Board area in the first five months of the year was almost 15 times that recorded in the same period last year.
Between January and May last year, the DHB's laboratory recorded only nine positive flu results. This year that number was 134.
The DHB says that is because the flu season has come early.
Last year it peaked around August. Between January and September 243 positive flu tests were recorded.
"We have had a significant increase in patients testing positive for flu, early in the year. We do not know why this is, or how the rest of the flu session will progress," a DHB spokeswoman said in a written statement.
"Both Influenza A and B viruses are circulating."
Schools are feeling the illness, with absentee numbers up.
About a third of Otonga Rd School pupils have been away sick each day for the last two weeks, with absentee numbers ranging from 126 to 140.
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Many pupils have tested positive for flu, including two who were hospitalised.
Principal Linda Woon told the Rotorua Daily Post all staff were offered flu vaccines and three who did not take the offer had got the flu already this winter.
"We've been in full pandemic mode," Woon said.
"We've had Dettol wipes everywhere and hand sanitiser, and thankfully in the last few school days, the absences have slowly reduced. But pupils are still getting sick."
She said some classes were left with just seven children due to illness and it was tough finding relievers.
"Teachers are at the end of the food chain. Every bug that's in the community, ends up at school, and then teachers are exposed to them. This last fortnight has been horrendous."
Seven students had to be sent home from school camp after getting ill.
"It's terrible, they have been very sick children indeed."
Mokoia Intermediate principal Rawiri Wihapi said the school had 60 to 80 children away sick a day recently.
"It's not just the academics they miss out on, it's also the sports teams and other groups and clubs that suffer. It just spreads so quickly in schools you can barely stop it. That's why we need those who have it to stay home and stop others from catching it."
Lynmore Primary School principal Lorraine Taylor said one day this month the school had 186 children away with flu symptoms, about 30 per cent of the school's roll.
Trudy Edwards, chair of Marist junior rugby, said the flu was "rampant".
"Every second person you talk to has got it, or their child has got it."
She manages a team in the Under 8s grade, and last weekend the flu caused "a big drop in players".
"We were affected by it quite badly."
The opposition reduced their team to seven players, instead of 10, so the numbers were even on the field.
Ranolf Medical Centre general practitioner Dr Harry Pert said the number of flu cases was actually much higher than the DHB's records because not every flu case in the district was formally confirmed with a test.
"GPs see hundreds of people with flu and they don't necessarily all need a test to be helped."
Rotorua pharmacist Brett Fordyce, owner and manager of Unichem Central Mall, said every year for about the last five years there had been a big increase in people coming to get their flu shot.
"We always knew there would be significantly more this year but because of the shortage we have seen an even bigger increase because other places have run out."
As of yesterday morning the pharmacy had 120 vaccines left, but Fordyce said that decreased "significantly hour by hour".
His team have vaccinated 40 per cent more people so far this year than this time last year.
"I think people are now realising how important it is, and others have got into the habit of coming in every year. It's becoming the norm. More employers are paying for it for staff too because the flu does knock you around for a good fortnight. It can kill you, it is serious."
He said 70 to 75 per cent of people over 65 enrolled with the centre had been vaccinated.
The Lakes DHB spokeswoman said she was not aware of this year's flu strains being any more virulent than in previous years, but the availability of vaccines was currently limited.
"Across New Zealand, the distribution of influenza vaccine has reached near record levels [almost 1.3m, the total for all of last winter]. The Ministry of Health has advised Lakes DHB that due to the high demand for the vaccine there is no more to be ordered of a certain brand and there are limited stocks across the community still available."
There is no surplus stock available from Australia, due to high demand there.
New Zealand is prioritising vaccinating children under 4 with serious respiratory illnesses, people with serious health conditions that make them more susceptible to flu, people aged over 65, and pregnant women.
They all get flu shots free and for the rest of the population the cost is about $35.
What can I do to recover from the flu?
Drink plenty of fluids
Take pain relief as required
Do steam inhalations or nasal rinses
Take a decongestant
Do throat gargles or take lozenges
How do I stop the spread of the flu?
One in four New Zealanders catches flu each year.
Many people don't know they have had the flu as they do not feel ill. But they can still pass it on and make other people very sick. If you are unwell, stay at home until you are better.
Follow basic hygiene practices:
Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds and dry them for 20 seconds – or use an alcohol-based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Don't share drinks.
Avoid crowded places.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze – then put the tissue in a lined bin.
What does the vaccine cover?
The vaccine is usually available from April until the end of December but is recommended before winter. The quadrivalent vaccines available in New Zealand during 2019 provide protection against:
A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1) - like virus
A/Switzerland/8060/2017 (H3N2) - like virus
B/Phuket/3073/2013 - like virus
What symptoms are dangerous?
Get urgent medical help for an adult with:
A high fever that doesn't come down, especially if you are pregnant
Chills or severe shaking
Difficulty breathing or chest pain
Purple or bluish discolouration of your lips, skin, fingers or toes
Seizures or convulsions
Signs of other serious conditions, such as meningococcal disease (which may include severe headache, sleepiness, vomiting, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, and sometimes a rash).
Look out for signs of dehydration such as dizziness when standing, and not passing urine regularly.
If a person you are caring for is less responsive than normal, unusually quiet, or confused, you should call a doctor urgently.
It is also important to let your doctor know if you were starting to feel better, then get worse.
Get urgent medical help for a baby or child who is:
Drowsy or difficult to wake
Severely irritable, not wanting to be held
Limp or unable to move
If a baby has dry nappies or no tears when they are crying, it means they are dehydrated. It is important to contact a doctor
If they have signs of other serious conditions, such as meningococcal disease (which may include severe headache, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, and sometimes a rash, but in very young children are often non-specific such as sleepiness and vomiting).
If you have any worries about yourself or someone you are caring for, call Healthline (0800 611 116) for advice or see a doctor, even if you have called or been seen before.
Can't build up a natural immunity to influenza?
Immunity develops after you have been exposed to a particular strain of the influenza virus either through infection or immunisation.
Can the vaccine give me influenza?
No. You cannot get influenza from the vaccine, as it does not contain any live viruses. However, some people will experience mild side effects such as muscle aches or
headaches for a short time after immunisation. This is a normal reaction.
Why is it so important that pregnant women get immunised?
Pregnant women are more likely to get severe influenza illness than other people, and it can affect their unborn baby. The influenza vaccine has been proven to have an
excellent safety record for both pregnant women and their unborn baby. The protection from immunisation in pregnancy is also passed on to the unborn baby so they are born with some protection against influenza for the first few months of life.
How long after vaccination does it take to start providing protection?
It takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to start providing protection.
Source: Ministry of Health