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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Along with falling leaves, colder weather and comfy sweaters, autumn also brings the flu, and while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year’s season was one of the worst on record, only time will tell how serious this season will be.

Despite the prevalence of the influenza virus and availability of vaccines, the virus still remains deadly on an annual basis. The CDC reported an estimated 80,000 people in the U.S. died from health complications related to influenza during the 2017-18 season, the highest fatality rate compared to any contemporary season on record since first published in 1976.

Of those deaths 183 were children, the most since 171 died in the 2012-13. Approximately 80 percent of those children who died did not receive a flu vaccination, according to the CDC.

The 2017-18 flu season yielded 30,453 influenza-related hospitalizations from October 2017 through April 2018. People 65 years or older accounted for the majority of those hospitalizations, according to the CDC. Overall hospitalization rates were also the highest on record.

Influenza viruses are hard to pin down, as they come in several forms which can require different vaccinations. The influenza A virus was the preeminent strand throughout the 2017-18 season, though influenza B viruses showed up in different parts of the season.

The CDC report for 2017-18 said the flu shot was only 25 percent effective against the H3N2 virus and 65 percent against H1N1, both type A viruses. Meanwhile it was 49 percent effective against B viruses. The report estimated the overall vaccine effectiveness at 40 percent, meaning it reduced a person’s overall risk of having to seek medical care for flu illness at that rate.

The CDC still strongly recommends vaccines as the best way to prevent contracting the virus, but especially for children at least 6 months old, and people aged 50 and older. Children aged 6 months through 8 years who require two doses should receive the first vaccination as soon as possible, and their next dose four weeks later, according to the CDC. For those looking to travel this season the CDC recommends a vaccination two or more weeks before departure.

The new vaccines being rolled out for the 2018-19 flu season will contain agents to specifically target the A(H1N1) and A(H3N2) viruses along with the usual B viruses.

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months or older gets a shot before the end of October. Flu shots are available at most primary care physicians, but also in CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid and Walgreens stores free with most insurance plans. The shot is also available in pharmacies in local Stop & Shop, Walmart, Target and Kmart stores. Many colleges, such as Stony Brook University, are offering flu shots to its students. Call your doctor or local pharmacy to ask whether they currently supply flu shots.

A free alcohol testing kit comes with one urination cup and test strip. Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

A new Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department program is looking to keep kids safe this prom and graduation season, while creating a way for parents to more easily open a dialogue with kids about underage drinking and drugs.

“We just want everyone to be prepared,” Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “It’s a celebratory moment for people graduating high school and moving on, and they feel a little empowered.”

On May 22 the sheriff’s office announced it is passing out free alcohol and drug testing kits.

“This is not supposed to be a punishment, and I don’t believe that was ever the purpose. It’s important to show kids that they can have fun without being high or drinking.”

— Janene Gentile

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for people in the United States between the ages of 15 and 24 is motor vehicle crashes. In Suffolk County, the leading causes of motor vehicle crashes are driving while ability impaired by alcohol or dugs and reckless or distracted driving.

The test kits include standard urine test that contains a single cup and stick that changes color depending on the presence of alcohol.

“We want parents to ask tough questions and [have] tough discussions early on so that they don’t get the knock on the door by a police officer telling them that their child is in the hospital or telling them that their child was driving while intoxicated,” Toulon said. “We would rather let them take care of their children so that law enforcement does not [have to] get involved.”

The North Shore Youth Council already offers these kits. Executive Director Janene Gentile said she doesn’t see the kits as a punitive measure, but as a way for parents to more easily talk about the topic with their children.

“Drinking is cultural in our society, but it’s an adult choice and not a young person’s choice,” she said.
“This is not supposed to be a punishment, and I don’t believe that was ever the purpose. It’s important to show kids that they can have fun without being high or drinking.”

Local schools have long tried to curb drug and alcohol use at prom while still trying to ensure graduating classes celebrate the final days before graduation.

Frank Pugliese said in his first year as principal of Shoreham-Wading River High School, he hopes his students can enjoy prom while staying safe.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but please be responsible in your actions so you do not harm yourself or anyone else.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“We strongly advise all students to always make appropriate decisions,” Pugliese said in an email. “With that being said, we have great students. The vast majority make smart choices regardless of the policies in place, and we trust that they will continue to do so on prom night.”

Smithtown High School West participates in the county District Attorney’s Office new Choices and Consequences program that shows the dangers of reckless and drunk driving. Members of the DA’s office will be in the high school June 18.

In a letter to students, Smithtown West High School Principal John Coady said anyone caught drinking during prom will be suspended and kicked out. Prom tickets will not be refunded, and the student may be barred from the graduation ceremony.

Fifty alcohol and 25 drug testing kits were sent out to numerous schools to kick off the program. The kits are also available free at each Suffolk County legislator’s office and will remain offered through the North Shore Youth Council.

Each alcohol testing kit costs .74 cents while drug testing kits are $1.50. The $5,000 program is being paid for with asset forfeiture funds.

“I would like for all of them to enjoy the moment,” Toulon said of seniors attending prom and graduation. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but please be responsible in your actions so you do not harm yourself or anyone else.”

Graphic by TBR News Media

Suffolk County’s police department has new numbers to get excited about.

Despite being less than halfway through the year, the police department and medical examiner’s office report the county is on trend to see a nearly 100-person decrease in opioid-related deaths in 2018, compared to the last two.

Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante and Chief Medical Examiner Michael Caplan confirmed at the May 31 Suffolk County Legislature’s health committee meeting that if numbers remain low through June and July, Suffolk might see overdose deaths drop to 2015 levels — 260 total — compared to 2016 and 2017, where there were 362 and 359, respectively.

“It feels like we’re making headway,” Gigante said. “Like we’re getting somewhere.”

The total number of opioid deaths for this year is 120 as of May 1, which includes 78 cases still pending, in which the medical examiner could not yet attribute the overdose to causing the victim’s death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 64,000 people nationwide died from drug overdoses in 2016. Caplan said Suffolk mirrors the national statistic that approximately 80 percent of all drug overdoses are caused by opioids.

Gigante attributed the decrease to large-scale drug busts, like the arrest of six people involved in a Brookhaven-based drug ring in Middle Island in March.

In the last few years the number of overdoses involving prescription drugs has decreased, according to Caplan, while those involving illegal and nonprescription substances have increased.

“[2011] was the peak of where prescription medications like oxycodone were our biggest problem,” the medical examiner said. “We saw the trend going away from prescription opioids and to semisynthetic opioids like heroin and fentanyl.”

Members of the health committee said the trend down is uplifting.

“We’re amazed,” Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said. “These numbers are nearly 10-fold less than previous years.”

Gigante also spoke during the meeting about the department’s High Intensity Drug Tracking Area system, which maps overdose detections in real time for police officers out in the field. SCPD members can report the location, time and other details of an overdose, which is used to determine where to concentrate resources.

The police department used the system to map 13 opioid overdoses Memorial Day weekend, three of which were fatal. This is compared to last year’s Memorial Day weekend where nine of 40 reports resulted in a fatality.

The numbers reflected in the statistics do not account for people who drive themselves to hospitals, but Gigante said he hopes to get medical institutions involved in reporting those numbers too.

“If we can override June and July then we will really start to see the ratio decrease,” Gigante said. “I’m cautiously optimistic we can turn that corner.”

Flu season is hitting New York and the country as a whole especially hard this year. Stock photo

Flu season is hitting harder than usual across the United States this year, and New York has been no exception.

The New York State Department of Health Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report for the week ending Feb. 3, the most recent week available, said it was the ninth consecutive week that widespread influenza activity was reported. The “widespread” distinction means two or more additional lab-confirmed cases of influenza were reported in greater than 31 of the 62 counties in the state per 100,000 people. Nearly 16,000 lab-confirmed cases were reported for that week in New York, compared to about 5,300 for the same week in 2017.

More than 1,100 cases were reported for the same week in Suffolk County, bringing the season-to-date total to 3,301. The week ending Feb. 3 saw nearly identical numbers for the preceding two weeks in Suffolk combined. Three influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported in New York so far this season, and 63 nationwide.

A Feb. 9 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated influenza-like illness reached 7.7 percent, the highest rate since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, or Swine Flu, which peaked at 7.7 percent. The overall hospitalization rate was higher for the past week than the rate reported for the same week in 2015, a high severity season, according to the CDC. Of the last six flu seasons, the 2017-18 hospitalization rate — 60 hospitalizations per 100,000 people — is the highest at this point in the season. Hospitalization rates have only exceeded 60 per 100,000 people over that span for nine weeks cumulatively — six weeks in 2015 and three weeks in 2017. Influenza-like illness has been at or above the national baseline for 11 weeks. During the last five flu seasons, influenza-like illness remained at or above baseline for 16 weeks on average, meaning the current flu season should be expected to continue for at least the next several weeks.

Flu prevention tips from the CDC:

1. Avoid close contact.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

2. Stay home when you are sick.

If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.

3. Cover your mouth and nose.

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

4. Clean your hands.

Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

6. Practice other good health habits.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

“I think something that the public tends to forget from year to year is that influenza is a significant health issue,” said Dr. Michael Grosso, the chief medical officer at Huntington Hospital. “Were this any other kind of infection, we would be rather alarmed as a country. We’re sort of accustomed to the flu.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken announced last week the county is offering free influenza immunization to residents following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) declaration of a statewide public health emergency.

“The health and wellness of our residents is of utmost importance,” Bellone said in a statement, also thanking Cuomo for the emergency declaration, which resulted in the release of funding to allow for the free flu shots.

Tomarken and Grosso each stressed it is not too late in the season to obtain a flu shot.

“I think it’s important that leaders not ever send mixed signals about this,” Grosso said.

Cuomo also directed the Suffolk DHS to provide educational information to schools, colleges and other service providers about obtaining flu shots and other preventative measures, according to a letter from Tomarken dated Feb. 9 on the DHS website.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) is sponsoring legislation that would, for the first time, collect data on all deaths resulting from influenza virus, not just deaths of those 18 years and younger. If approved, the statistics would be reported monthly during flu season and would become the basis of an annual report on that year’s flu season due to the Legislature each May.

“Our understanding of annual influenza outbreaks is limited by the limited data being collected by national, state and local health officials,” Hahn said in a statement. “When the statistics used to monitor this epidemic excludes nearly 79 percent of Suffolk County’s population it is difficult to get a clear picture of its impact on public health. I know having complete information will aid county officials who need to make reasonable predictions based upon available datasets.”

Legislator William ‘Doc’ Spencer (D-Centerport) is also supporting the bill.

Northwell Health, a health system that oversees several area hospitals including Huntington Hospital, has instituted a new “biosurveillance” system to track and respond to the volume of influenza cases it’s handling this season. Among other benefits, the system enables Northwell Health to proactively manage the distribution of resources, including supplies needed to treat patients and protect staff, such as antiviral medications, rapid-flu tests, masks and gloves.

Grosso said the implementation of the statistics yielded from the new system is still coming along, and he said he anticipates it will be a useful tool during subsequent flu seasons.

Free flu shots are available for Suffolk residents age 2 and older at local pharmacies and for those at least 6 months old at pediatrician and healthcare provider offices. Additionally, the county is offering free immunizations for residents 6 months old and up Feb. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Riverhead Free Library and Feb. 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. Residents are asked to call 631-787-2200 Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to schedule an appointment.

Residents participate in a CDC survey to accumulate data on health and diets of Americans. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Suffolk County residents will play an important role in improving the health of their fellow Americans in 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention selected Suffolk as one of 15 counties nationwide to participate in its annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a data collection study that is used to draw conclusions about the health and diets of people in the United States.

The CDC is the nation’s health protection agency, conducting research in the hopes of preventing the spread of diseases and tracking their prevalence. The NHANES is a 55-year-old program that tracks health and diet trends in the U.S. by selecting counties based on demographics with the goal of accumulating a set of data representative of the entire population of the country.

Three CDC trailers will spend about six weeks parked in Stony Brook’s Research and Development Park to study Suffolk County residents. Photo from CDC

This is the second time Suffolk was observed as part of the survey since the turn of the century, according to study manager Jacque DeMatteis. The CDC arrived April 29 at Stony Brook University’s Research and Development Park in three mobile trailers outfitted with dozens of pieces of medical equipment, researchers and physicians to begin assessments on the approximately 600 Suffolk residents selected.

“It’s important because right now we’ve got all of these miracles happening with cancer research and things like that, without information that people help us to provide — a lot of it comes from here — [researchers] don’t have anything to draw on,” DeMatteis said of the purpose of the yearly survey during a tour of the CDC mobile facility May 19.

Charles Rothwell, director of the National Center for Health Statistics, reiterated the importance of accumulating the data in a statement.

“The survey is a unique resource for health information, and without it we would lack important knowledge about major health conditions,” he said. “The comprehensive data collected by NHANES has a far-reaching and significant impact on everything from the quality of the air we breathe, to the vaccinations you get from your doctor, to the emergence of low-fat and ‘light’ foods on the shelves of your grocery store.”

A young participant in the study is measured. Photo from CDC

The process for selecting participants within a county begins with about 1,500 addresses, and interviewers scour the area in the hopes of securing about 600 willing participants who also provide a representative sample of age ranges, genders, races and ethnicities and degrees of health. The selected participants who are willing to be examined then visit the mobile facility to be subjected to a variety of tests of blood pressure, diet, dental/oral health, vision and hearing, bone density, liver function and much more using high-tech scans not often available through traditional physicians.

DeMatteis made the case for selected participants making the trip to be studied despite some minor possible inconveniences.

“For the people who participate, they get their results back,” she said. “If anything abnormal comes up they’re contacted immediately. Our national health officer will contact them and we’ve had a couple of situations where it was kind of life-threatening situations and they were totally unaware of it.”

Participating adults also receive $125, reimbursement for travel expenses and the opportunity to receive credit for five hours of community service. Newborns and up are required for data collection, though specific scans and tests are not done uniformly across age groups.

“A lot of people do it for the exams, and in the past even more people had no means to get access to health care, so they came here because they’re going to get a whole lot of data about their health that they otherwise can’t afford to get,” DeMatteis said.

No medical procedures are offered at the site, though on occasion physicians are forced to recommend immediate treatment if anything concerning appears as a result of a test. Patients are also allowed to pick and choose which tests they’d like to participate in of the ones they qualify for. The CDC urges anyone selected to participate in the survey.

Peter Magistrale speaks in support of the Child Victims Act at a rally in St. James. Photo by Ted Ryan

By Ted Ryan and Victoria Espinoza

Residents of the North Shore gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in St. James Oct. 15, to raise awareness of sexual abuse of children in New York state.

Democratic candidate for the state Senate race in the 2nd District, Peter Magistrale, hosted the rally. He is advocating for a change to the current statute of limitations that restricts when a child rape victim can come forward with a civil or criminal case against their abuser.

In New York, once victims turn 23 they can no longer make a case for child abuse against the predator in question.

According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. In addition, the National Center for Victims of Crime said 14 percent of sexual offenders commit another sexual offense after five years, and 24 percent after 15 years.

The National Sex Offender Public Website stated children usually delay telling someone if they have been sexually abused because they are either afraid of a negative reaction from their parents or of being harmed by the abuser. The website indicated kids often “delay disclosure until adulthood.”

Magistrale said he thinks the restriction is unjust and wants to turn the tide on child abusers by removing the statute of limitations through the Child Victims Act. The bill would eliminate both criminal and civil statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse, and provide a one-time, one-year window in the statute of limitations to enable victims whose claim was time-barred by the current arbitrary limitations to revive their claim.

A similar version of this bill failed to make it past the state Senate floor during the legislative session this past June.

“A kid takes on average 21 years to come forward [to admit they were abused],” Magistrale said at the rally. “The average age that a child is raped is 8 or 9. By the time they build the courage and get over their psychological scars, time is up. We have to pass the Child Victims Act to do two things: Lift the statute of limitations completely, and then give a one-year look back window for people who were abused and unable to come forward in the past to point out who did it to them so we get them [the predators] off the street as well.”

Several victims of child abuse spoke at the rally, as well as members of anti-child abuse organizations. They told their stories of the abuse and their subsequent frustration with the restrictive statute.

Among the speakers was Melanie Blow, COO of the Stop Abuse Campaign.

“It’s simply ridiculous it’s taken us 10 years to pass the most significant bill to prevent child abuse,” Blow said. “But we’ve got survivors coming together right now to get the word out, to tell parents that this is an issue, and this piece of legislation will help.”

John De Vito, Democratic candidate for the state Senate’s 3rd district, also spoke at the rally.

“So many people here who are victims of sexual violence might never have a day in court to seek justice,” De Vito said. “But if we pass the Child Victims Act, our children will be awarded that opportunity going forward.”

During an interview at TBR News Media’s office in East Setauket, state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said he agreed with Magistrale, who he is running against for re-election in the 2nd District, that this is an important issue but he does not support the legislation.

“There are significant protections in the law right now,” he said. “This is a one-year opener that could bring cases going back 40, 50, 60 years. We have statute of limitations for very cogent reasons and no matter how emotional a subject may be, witness availability, evidence, all those things have a salutary effect in terms of what happens.”

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