Last week, the CDC reported widespread flu in our state and more than half the country. 

Health officials say that means you can expect more people to get sick in the next few weeks.   

Physicians are seeing positive flu tests, as well as patients suffering from either a cold or a winter mystery virus (adenovirus) that looks a lot like the flu.    

Public health officials in Virginia and North Carolina report seasonal influenza is at widespread levels across both states.

Effective immediately, Sentara Healthcare officials announced this week they are asking all patients and visitors, including those seeking outpatient services, to wear a mask inside its hospitals, medical facilities and physician practices to protect the community from the spread of flu.

Masks and hand sanitizer are available at all facility entrances for public use.

All patients and visitors, even those who already had a flu vaccine, are strongly encouraged to wear masks inside health care facilities. The flu vaccine is the best prevention available but is not 100 percent effective.

Masking provides an added layer of protection from the potentially deadly disease.

Individuals experiencing flu-like symptoms are asked to stay at home and refrain from visiting patients at the hospital.

Symptoms of flu include fever and respiratory illness symptoms such as cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, chills and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.

The recommendation to wear a mask when entering health care facilities will remain in effect during flu season for as long as the disease is at widespread levels, hospital officials said.

Additional measures to limit the spread of disease, especially flu, include washing hands frequently, staying home when sick, getting vaccinated and coughing into sleeves or tissues.

“The flu is serious business, so you cannot ignore the symptoms. Last season the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 80,000 deaths, which was the deadliest season in 40 years,” says Dr. Benjamin Barlow, chief medical officer of American Family Care. “We are still early on in this flu season, as it usually doesn’t peak until March.  Of course, the best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated.”      

In addition to getting a flu shot, physicians advise taking a few every day preventive measures to boost your chances of avoiding the flu.

Five habits that can help prevent the spread of flu include the following: 

• Avoid sharing pens.  Whether at work or signing a credit card receipt at a store, never pick up a public pen, because they’re covered with other people’s germs.  Keep a pen handy for any situation that could pop up. 

• Knuckle it.   When using a debit card machine, get into the habit of punching in your card pin with a knuckle instead of a fingertip.  This way if you rub your eye or mouth with your fingertip, you’re not transferring germs. 

• Play it safe at the pump.  Drivers must get gas for their vehicles no matter what, sick or not.  Protect yourself at the pump, grab a paper towel before picking up the gas nozzle.  You can also use the paper towel as a barrier when punching in your debit/credit card info.   

• Shake and Wash. People are more germ-conscious these days so avoiding a handshake is not as rude as once thought, especially during flu season.  If you must do it, wash or sanitize with your hands immediately.  

• Hands off, please!   You are constantly using either your phone or computer tablet to show friends and coworkers pictures or videos. This means other people are putting their germs on something you are constantly touching.  Get into the habit of wiping your phone down with a disinfecting wipe to cut down on spreading germs. Or just text your friends photos and videos.   

The following are a few fast flu facts:

• Children under the age of 6, pregnant women and adults 65 or older are at high risk for serious flu complications like inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues or multi-organ failure. 

• Most experts think flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when someone with flu coughs, sneezes or talks. They can infect you from six feet away. 

• People can carry the virus and risk exposing others when they show little symptoms.

• Frequently touched surfaces at work or school should be cleaned and disinfected especially if someone is ill.

Paula I. Bryant is the editor of The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at pbryant@gazettevirginian.com.​

Paula I. Bryant is the editor of The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at pbryant@gazettevirginian.com.