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How our nation views Christmas today

How many Americans plan to celebrate Christmas? And how many believe in the biblical Christmas story? A new Pew Research Center survey takes a closer look at these questions and more. The complete report begins on page B5

Got that shot yet? Flu season could be rough here, data show

This flu season in Georgia and the South is shaping up to be harsher than the last one.

Georgia is one of seven states overall — most of them in the Southeast — that have reported "widespread'' flu activity, according to a new CDC report, tracking the week ending Dec. 2.

"Flu is increasing. We're seeing a pretty steep increase in influenza activity across the U.S. but especially in the South," Brendan Flannery, a co-author of the new report and an epidemiologist in the CDC's flu division, told CNN.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said Friday that there have been 47 influenza-associated hospitalizations in the eight-county metro Atlanta area so far this season. This time last year, there had been 26 such hospitalizations, the agency said.

No flu-related deaths have been reported in Georgia.

Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia also reported widespread activity.

Public health officials urge that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot. The CDC, though, reports that fewer than half of Americans have received the vaccine so far this season.

Concern about a severe flu season comes from several factors, including signs that the season started a few weeks earlier than usual, NPR reported.

"When you have an early start with regional outbreaks, that is generally not a good sign," said Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Sometimes that's the forerunner of a serious season."

An early start could mean a longer season, which could mean more people end up getting infected with the flu, according to the NPR article.

Another reason for concern is that Australia had a severe flu season this year. (Because that country is in the Southern Hemisphere, its fallwinter flu season occurs during our spring and summer months.)

A major reason for Australia's problem is that the main strain of flu circulating there was one known as H3N2. That kind of flu virus tends to make people sicker than do other strains, especially the elderly, NPR said.

To make things worse, the flu vaccine appears to have been only about 10 percent effective against that strain in Australia. Part of the reason for that is that flu strains are constantly changing and the H3N2 strain used to make the vaccine mutated during production of the vaccine. This weakened the shot's effectiveness.

"The mutation just happened to be in a very bad spot on the virus to make it essentially be a mismatch for the vaccine," Fauci said.

The United States is using the same vaccine, and an H3N2 strain appears to be dominating outbreaks in this country so far. But it could also turn out that the vaccine could be far more effective in the United States than it was in Australia, according to Flannery of the CDC.

That's because a slightly different H3N2 strain could end up dominating in this country, for example. Another possibility is that other flu strains could become more common. The vaccine provides stronger protection against those.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told CNN that "vaccine effectiveness" is not the sole measure of a vaccine's benefits.

"When we measure vaccine effectiveness, that's . . . protecting against disease completely," said Schaffner.

"What's not measured is that, even if you get the flu in spite of the vaccine, your flu case is likely to be milder; you're less likely to have the complications of pneumonia, having to be hospitalized and dying," he said.

County closing clinic

Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield last week announced that the partnership between the county and an onsite employee health care clinic will come to an end Dec. 29.

Southern Clinic Solutions has been the health care provider for both the county and the city of LaFayette for the past several years.

LaFayette on Dec. 11 announced that its partnership is coming to a close with the current clinic at the end of the year.

Meanwhile the county listed the employee health clinic on the agenda for the Thursday, Dec. 14, commissioner's meeting. But Whitfield tabled the matter until a future meeting because more details must be worked out, he said.

"The county has, for several years, provided an on-site health clinic for the employees. There has been a contract in place with a local provider. We have given them notice that we are suspending that contract as of the end of the year, so their service will run through Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. We will continue with a clinic for our employees and their coverage dependents, so anyone that is on the county medical insurance program as an employee —and if they have their covered dependents

on there — we will still be able to provide them with clinical services," Whitfield said.

The commissioner said "there are a few more things to do" before an agreement is finalized.

"Once we get the agreement finalized, we will have another meeting publically and announce those changes. But we did want to assure all of our employees that we will be ongoing, still providing a clinic for them," Whitfield said.

Whitfield said a new focus will be on wellness care, preventative care and programs to help county employees in quitting nicotine addictions.

Whitfield did not announce who the new provider would be. But the services he described are similar to those being offered to LaFayette by CHI Memorial.

He said the county was searching for a "higher level of care" with more space, onsite equipment — outside of the county office— without the liability risk of dispensing prescription drugs.

Whitfield said the county was also looking to extend the hours of service for county employees and their families.

"The provider that we had, for what they had to work within this facility, provided a good service. We are not upset with them at all. They did well with what they had to work with that was provided here for them, but we've been able to study this over several months and to take that to a higher level of care to increase our benefit offering to our employees, we are going to make that change."

LaFayette goes with CHI Memorial

During a Dec. 11 LaFayette council meeting, the city voted 2-1 to end the city's partnership with Southern Clinic Solutions and will now be partnering with CHI Memorial effective Jan. 2.

Mayor Andy Arnold called it a tough decision, but one that had to be made.

The city praised the work of the current clinic, but said they are elected to make tough decisions.

CHI offers the city extended hours — including Saturdays — which will be able to conduct X-rays and lab work "on the spot," Councilwoman Judy Meeks said.

Councilman Ben Bradford voted against the motion citing that he has nothing against CHI, but he feels this move hurts small businesses as larger corporations continue to move across the country and affect small businesses.

Bradford said the current provider has a more personal touch.

"I think it is going to be a little more cost-effective ... and there are two locations," Arnold said.

Not only will both locations be available to the city employees, they will be better equipped, Arnold said.

Arnold said the original clinic did a "great job" and served its purpose, but the benefits of change would be best for the city.

"It is with some reserve that I have, but it is just what has to occur," he said.

LaFayette employee health care shifting to CHI Memorial

The city of LaFayette will follow the soon-to-be-announced lead of Walker County government in closing the employee health clinic and begin working with CHI Memorial.

The matter was voted on during the Monday, Dec. 11, council meeting.

The current worksite clinic is located at 101 South Duke St. in LaFayette.

After the county decided to go with Memorial, having the city follow that lead would be beneficial, City Manager David Hamilton said.

One of the things Memorial is bringing to the table, Hamilton said, is that city employees can use either the CHI-run clinic in LaFayette or the one in Chickamauga.

Services will be available at the CHI clinics 36 hours per week — including Saturdays — as opposed to what the county and the city have now.

"I'm recommending that we move our employee clinic to CHI Memorial effective Jan. 2," Hamilton said.

Mayor Andy Arnold said the move would benefit everyone..

"I think it is going to be a little more cost-effective ... and there are two locations," Arnold said.

Not only will both locations be available to the

city employees, they will be better equipped, Arnold said.

Tough decisions must be made

Arnold said the original clinic did a "great job" and served its purpose, but the benefits of change would be best for the city.

"It is with some reserve that I have, but it is just what has to occur," he said.

Councilman Ben Bradford objected the move.

Bradford said he did not have anything against Memorial, that it does "good work" and is managed by "good people."

However, he feels this hurts small businesses as larger corporations continue to move across the country and affect small businesses.

"I really do not like that, when I go to the doctor, I have to sit there and there's three people in the room. There's me, there's my doctor and there is the invisible agent of the man that is sitting there telling me what I can do, what I can't do, what my insurance will pay for and making these decisions that I have no control over," Bradford said. "Health care is becoming more and more mechanized and impersonalized. It's instead an industry that should be very personal and very intimate and instead, it's the exact opposite."

Councilwoman Judy Meeks said she respects Bradford's opinion on the subject and praised the current clinic's work, but said she sees the benefit of having after-hours care, something that is not now available.

"I hate to do them like this, but you know we have access to weekends, when people are sick after hours," Meeks said.

Meeks added that going with CHI allows city employees and their families to have lab work and X-rays conducted "on the spot."

"We don't have to go anywhere else to do that," Meeks said.

Arnold added that this is a tough decision, but that's what elected officials get elected to do.

With Councilmen Wayne Swanson and Chris Davis absent from the meeting, the motion to take the CHI Memorial proposal passed 2-to-1.