Overwhelmed by flu cases, some ERs turn ambulances away

1:53 PM
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Health officials in Southern California are warning the public that the current flu season is so intense that some hospitals are rerouting patients due to their increasingly limited capacity. From Laguna Beach to Long Beach, emergency rooms were struggling to cope with the overwhelming cases of influenza and had gone into “diversion mode,” during which ambulances are sent to other hospitals, CBS Los Angeles reports.

O.C. Global, one of Orange County’s busiest hospitals, announced Thursday afternoon it would no longer be accepting ambulances at its emergency room except for those transporting trauma patients.

“It’s not just Orange County, it’s all across the country,” internist Dr. Ray Casciari with St. Joseph Hospital told CBS2 Los Angeles. “So, yes, this is going to be an epidemic year,” Casciari warned.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 26 states and New York City were experiencing high levels of flu-like illness as of last week. Nine more states plus Puerto Rico were seeing moderate levels of flu.

Earlier in the day, the City of Riverside held a press conference during which health officials addressed the “surge” in influenza cases during the last week in the city, as well as Riverside County.

Dr. Steven Kim, medical director for Riverside Community Hospital, said emergency room admissions for the flu were up 40 percent above the norm, though he said many of the patients suffered from “uncomplicated influenza,” meaning most of them would get better on their own with minimal medical attention.

However, people are susceptible to pneumonia, Kim said. The surge has been in influenza A, or “cyclical” flu cases.

The Orange County Health Care Agency has logged at least 1,200 flu cases, more than double than what was seen in the first week of January 2016.

For the state, Casciani predicted this is an early spike in cases that will reach four times what it was at the same time last year.

Prevention — which includes washing hands and staying home if a person is sick — is key, doctors say.

Casciani also warned that a sneeze contains up to 500,000 influenza germs.

While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective against the flu — in fact, this year it’s far lower — the shot can reduce the severity of the illness.

When is the flu serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital? Health officials say a person should head to the emergency room when symptoms include confusion, difficulty breathing, vomiting and uncontrolled fever.

Hospitals Overwhelmed by Flu Patients Are Treating Them in Tents

JANUARY 18, 2018 2:28 PM EST
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The 2017-2018 influenza epidemic is sending people to hospitals and urgent-care centers in every state, and medical centers are responding with extraordinary measures: asking staff to work overtime, setting up triage tents, restricting friends and family visits and canceling elective surgeries, to name a few.

“We are pretty much at capacity, and the volume is certainly different from previous flu seasons,” says Dr. Alfred Tallia, professor and chair of family medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “I’ve been in practice for 30 years, and it’s been a good 15 or 20 years since I’ve seen a flu-related illness scenario like we’ve had this year.”

Tallia says his hospital is “managing, but just barely,” at keeping up with the increased number of sick patients in the last three weeks. The hospital’s urgent-care centers have also been inundated, and its outpatient clinics have no appointments available.

The story is similar in Alabama, which declared a state of emergency last week in response to the flu epidemic. Dr. Bernard Camins, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says that UAB Hospital cancelled elective surgeries scheduled for Thursday and Friday of last week to make more beds available to flu patients.

“We had to treat patients in places where we normally wouldn’t, like in recovery rooms,” says Camins. “The emergency room was very crowded, both with sick patients who needed to be admitted and patients who just needed to be seen and given Tamiflu.”

In California, which has been particularly hard hit by this season’s flu, several hospitals have set up large “surge tents” outside their emergency departments to accommodate and treat flu patients. Even then, the LA Times reported this week, emergency departments had standing-room only, and some patients had to be treated in hallways.

The Lehigh Valley Health System in Allentown, Pennsylvania, set up a similar surge tent in its parking lot on Monday, in response to an increase in patients presenting with various viral illnesses, including norovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu. “We’ve put it into operation a couples times now over the last few days,” said a hospital spokesperson. “I think Tuesday we saw upwards of about 40 people in the tent itself.”

Many hospitals are also encouraging visitors to stay away. Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center announced last week that it was temporarily restricting visits from children 14 and under and anyone with flu symptoms. “This measure is to prevent unnecessary spread of influenza and to protect you, our patients, and our staff,” the health system posted on Facebook.

Loyola University Health System in Chicago—which set a hospital flu-activity record of 190 confirmed cases between January 7 and 13—has also instituted similar visitor restrictions, although a spokesperson for the hospital says it’s a standard precaution for flu season. Loyola also requires all employees to receive a mandatory flu shot, a policy it started in 2009.