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Associated Press  

This 2013 file photo shows vials of flu vaccines in Philadelphia.

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Flu Facts: Virulent strain helped make flu season worse this year

The number of flu cases in Pennsylvania this season has potentially peaked at the highest levels since 2009, and at a little less than double the numbers of previous years, according to data from the state Department of Health.

Two weeks ago, there were 13,000 flu cases reported, which health officials hope is the peak of the flu season this year. The number of flu cases fell last week to a little above 10,000, which is still higher than where other flu seasons have peaked.

According to the Department of Health, other flu seasons in the last eight years have peaked at around 8,000 cases, including 2009 when the country dealt with the swine flu. Half of those seasons since 2009-10 only reached 4,000 cases or fewer.

This season, the number of reported flu cases has stayed above 4,000 since the first week of January.

Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist of UPMC Pinnacle, said this flu season has been worse and lasted longer because of the type of strain that is the most prevalent in this year’s cases: H3N2.

“Anytime we have that strain, we see more deaths,” he said. “It’s a strain that normally creates more severe symptoms, more hospitalizations and more deaths. Simply, we’re seeing more severe (cases), and this has lasted longer than the typical flu season.”

According to the Department of Health, 64.37 percent of the cases this season up to Feb. 17 in the state were due to the H3N2 virus.

H3N2 was also blamed for the increase in hospitalizations and deaths in the 2014-15 flu season, in which its vaccine was only 19 percent effective, according to the CDC and Associated Press.

Part of the reason that number is high is because vaccines typically aren’t very effective against that strain, Goldman said.

The Associated Press reported that this season’s flu vaccine is 36 percent effective overall. The reason the number is low is because of its effective rate on the one strain.

The vaccine was determined to be only 25 percent effective against H3N2, but it was deemed 67 percent effective against H1N1 (swine flu) and 42 percent effective against Type B influenza.

Goldman said that one reason a vaccine for H3N2 is often ineffective is because vaccines are created with an antigenic drift. The vaccine deals with variations of flu strains to cover the following flu season, and H3N2 is harder to predict, along with technical issues with growing the virus, he said.

Though the vaccine is less effective against one strain, Goldman said it’s still important to get a flu shot. Even though the vaccine may not 100 percent prevent someone from getting the flu, he said it will reduce the severity of symptoms.

“If you get a flu shot, the risk of death goes down 50 percent,” he said.

He said those who have not yet received a flu shot can still get one. The Department of Health this week stopped short of claiming that the flu season had peaked, but the number of cases could remain high even as the total falls.

Flu seasons usually start in October and surveillance of cases ends in May, but where each season peaks varies. Some have peaked before January, and others peak in January and February. The 2015-16 season peaked in March, according to the Department of Health. State data shows that flu cases can linger through April.

Flu Facts: Flu-associated deaths hit elderly hardest

Last week in Pennsylvania, 28 people died from the flu, bringing the number of deaths this flu season to 135.

According to the state Department of Health, the majority of those deaths involved someone aged 65 and older. This season to date, 106 of the 135 deaths involved those older than 65, while there were two pediatric deaths, six deaths of people aged 19 to 49 and 21 deaths of those 50 to 64 years old.

Those numbers are typical when it comes to flu-associated deaths, according to Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist with UPMC Pinnacle.

“Typically in any given year, you’ll have 10 to 20 to 30,000 people who will die from the flu,” he said. “About 90 percent of those are above age 65. It’s relatively rare for younger people to die from the flu.”

If there are pediatric cases, Goldman said those deaths typically involve children who are 2 and younger.

Others at higher risk include those with underlying health factors, such as congestive heart failure, emphysema and asthma.

The National Center for Health Statistics collects death certificate data from state statistics for all deaths in the country, and part of that data includes pneumonia and influenza deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The NCHS Mortality Surveillance System shows that seniors have higher rates of flu-associated deaths during the season. An examination of the total deaths in the country shows 10.9 percent of those 65 and older had died of pneumonia or the flu in the second week of January.

According to the system, that rate of death varies anywhere from 8.7 percent to 12.2 percent at its peak. The system had not yet collected total data from Week 6 when this season could have potentially peaked.

Other age groups see anywhere from a 6 to 8 percent rate of flu-associated deaths.

In Pennsylvania, where the system did not break out deaths by age group, about 8.7 percent of the deaths in the third week of January could be attributed to the flu or pneumonia, with about 56 percent of the reports being collected. Pennsylvania’s overall rate can range from 8 percent to more than 10 percent, which is where it peaked in 2014-15, when the flu vaccine was considered less effective than in other years.

Associated Press 

Dr. Hany Atallah stands inside a mobile emergency room set up outside Grady Memorial Hospital to help handle flu cases in Atlanta.

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Judges decline to immediately throw out congressional map

HARRISBURG — A new congressional map in Pennsylvania on Friday survived a request from eight of the state’s Republican congressmen that federal judges throw it out immediately, but the case remained far from settled days before candidates will start collecting signatures to get on the primary ballot.

Hours after they were appointed to the case, a three-judge panel declined to temporarily hold up implementation of the map put in place by the state Supreme Court on Monday. The new map substantially overhauls a GOP-drawn one that has helped produce a predominantly Republican delegation and was widely viewed as among the nation’s most gerrymandered.

The three federal judges laid out a schedule for the parties to elaborate on their legal positions, including a March 9 hearing in Harrisburg.

Congressional candidates in Pennsylvania are scheduled to start collecting signatures Tuesday to get their names on the primary ballot.

The GOP congressmen and two Republican state senators sued two high-ranking state elections official on Thursday, asking the federal court to require the use of a Republican-drawn 2011 congressional district map for this year’s primary and general elections.

They argue the map the state justices produced is biased in favor of Democrats, and the state court did not give state lawmakers sufficient time to produce a replacement map.

A lawyer for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf wrote the court Friday on behalf of the elections officials, noting that two other Republican leaders in the Legislature have a request for a stay of the new map pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Deputy General Counsel Thomas Howell asked the federal court to defer action on the congressmen’s lawsuit until that request has been resolved.

Howell claimed that the lawsuit against Wolf’s acting secretary of state and the head of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation has “significant hurdles” and is “rife with legal and factual errors.”

The judicial panel, named pursuant to a federal law governing constitutional challenges to congressional reapportionment, consists of Judge Christopher Conner, a Pennsylvania-based district judge; Judge Jerome Simandle, a senior district judge from New Jersey; and Judge Kent Jordan, a circuit judge who was formerly a district judge in Delaware.

Conner and Jordan were chosen for the federal bench by President George W. Bush, while Simandle was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.

In the parallel case, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put the new map on hold, arguing state justices overstepped their authority. On Thursday the leaders also asked the state Supreme Court to delay the map. Wolf and other parties were given until noon Monday to weigh in.

The 2011 map has helped Republicans maintain a 13-5 edge in the congressional delegation for three elections.

The Democrats who are the majority on the state Supreme Court ruled in January that the 2011 map violated the state constitution’s guarantee of free and equal elections. After lawmakers did not enact a Wolf-supported plan during a two-week window, the judges drew their own map.

Democrats have about 800,000 more registered voters in Pennsylvania, but President Donald Trump, a Republican, narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in the state during the 2016 election.

Democrats are hopeful that new Pennsylvania congressional districts will help them flip enough Republican seats to retake majority control of the U.S. House this year. Six Pennsylvania congressman elected in 2016 are not running again, an unusually large number.

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South Middleton Township
New steakhouse to open Monday in South Middleton Township

A much anticipated steakhouse in South Middleton Township will open next week.

Roadhouse Steak and Seafood, located in the 900 block of Walnut Bottom Road, announced in a Facebook post that the restaurant will officially open Monday.

The restaurant will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., according to the Facebook post.

Construction of the new steakhouse, located where a former Bonanza Steakhouse once stood, began in mid-2017 and was completed late last year.

Roadhouse Steak and Seafood will include a 7,700 square-foot building and parking for 95 vehicles, South Middleton Township Supervisor Tom Faley said. The restaurant will have room to seat 250 people and will be able to employ about 22 people.

The former Bonanza Steakhouse was destroyed by a fire in October 2013, and the property was purchased by RB Investments in late 2016 for $950,000.

The site was under consideration to be home to a new Sheetz gas station and convenience store but plans for that business were scuttled because of concerns about traffic and the environment.