When local resident Amanda Roper and her family visited the emergency room at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville last Friday for an undisclosed illness, she was surprised to find the place packed with people.
“The nurse said that everything was taking forever because the hospital was in code black,” Roper said. “We had to wait several hours for transport.”
The culprit for this backlog was an obvious, clear and present danger: the flu.
This year’s epidemic is the worst on record since the 2014-15 winter season, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reporting that the flu is widespread in every state except Hawaii.
Dr. Fatimah Manzoor, internist at The Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville, said “we are definitely” seeing an earlier spike in outbreaks this winter season, and while the epidemic may be peaking, it’ll be another 10 weeks or more before it’s over.
Hospital visitation precautions during flu season
- During the flu season, children less than 14 years of age are advised against visiting anyone in the hospital, if possible.
- Anyone feeling ill is asked not to visit a hospital patient, especially if the visitor has symptoms of a cold or flu.
- Anyone with cold or flu symptoms coming to the hospital for evaluation or testing must wear a mask. Please ask for a mask if one is not available at the entrance.
- If you have been ill, please wait until you have been symptom-free for 24 hours before visiting anyone in the hospital.
- If your family member is in the hospital due to flu symptoms, please consider wearing a mask during your visit.
- Always clean your hands before and after visiting anyone in the hospital.
Source: Northeast Georgia Medical Center
Urgent care, pediatrics and other primary care divisions have been under increased demand for weeks, so much so that Longstreet is running low on flu tests.
Manzoor said doctors and nurses are now gauging the illness by the symptoms, such as head and body aches, vomiting and diarrhea, that patients show and beginning treatment immediately in response.
The positive rate for the months of December and January this season is 26 percent versus just 6 percent during the same timeframe last season, according to Longstreet CEO Mimi Collins.
And the number of patient visits for flu and flu-related illnesses to Longstreet between October and Jan. 15 of this season increased 29 percent over the same timeframe last year.
Finally, the volume of patients visiting strictly urgent care centers operated by Longstreet in Gainesville and Oakwood has more than doubled since last season.
Collins said a number of health care providers at Longstreet have been impacted by the epidemic, with sick days quickly being spent.
- Frequent and thorough hand-washing with soap and warm water. Alcohol-based gels are the next best thing if you don’t have access to soap and water.
- Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of the flu. Use a tissue or cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or arm.
- Avoid touching your face as flu germs can get into the body through mucous membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes.
- If you are sick, stay home from school or work. Flu sufferers should be free of a fever, without the use of a fever reducer, for at least 24 hours before returning to school or work.
- To learn more about influenza log on to www.flu.gov.
Manzoor said health officials are particularly concerned about the youngest and oldest patients, who could be at risk of developing flu-related complications, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
Flu symptoms can also include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and severe fatigue.
Across the country, it’s been a rough few weeks: Hospitals have set up tents to handle patient overflow. Doctors are putting in double and triple shifts. Ambulances have been sidelined while paramedics waited to drop off patients.
But an update out last Friday from the CDC shows patient traffic for flu is no longer skyrocketing the way it was in December.
“It looks like it’s starting to level out,” said the CDC’s Lynnette Brammer, who oversees flu tracking.
Still, flu is unpredictable.
“I don’t know where it will end up,” Brammer added.
Many flu seasons don’t really get going until around Christmas, and don’t crescendo until February. That’s how last year’s flu season played out. This season got off to an early start, and cases surged over the holidays.
What had some people worried about this U.S. flu season was the bad season last year in Australia. That country was hit hard by a flu bug that’s notorious for causing severe illness, and flu viruses spread around the world. Preliminary estimates suggested the vaccine barely worked there, and the U.S. was again facing the same H3N2 virus with the same flu shot.
That virus caused one of the worst U.S. flu seasons in recent years, 2014-15, when the vaccine was a poor match. It was back last winter, but the vaccine was a better fit.
Health officials say this year’s shot targets the strains that are making Americans sick, primarily H3N2. How well it is working won’t be known until next month, but it’s expected to be better than the 10 percent Australia reported.
The CDC estimates there are tens of thousands of deaths each year from flu and pneumonia.
The Georgia Department of Public Health has confirmed four flu-related deaths so far, but that number is expected to increase. There are more than 300 hospitalizations for influenza-associated illness in metro Atlanta.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.