Health officials report flu spike

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Jim Leute
Friday, January 11, 2013

Janesville health care providers are seeing double-digit increases in patients with flu-like symptoms and are taking steps to protect other patients from getting sick.

Officials at Mercy Health System, St. Mary's Janesville Hospital and Dean Clinic-Janesville East all said Thursday that patient volume is up significantly.

"These people are just feeling miserable," said Dr. Keith Konkol, Mercy's director of infectious diseases. "This flu comes on like a freight train, and while people feel fine, an hour or two later they can have a fever of 103 or 104, all kinds of body aches, and they just feel like they're going to die."

Konkol said Mercy has seen significant increases in flu visits to its urgent care centers and emergency rooms.

"We're nowhere near being over capacity like some of the hospitals that are bypassing patients," he said.

St. Mary's Janesville Hospital also has experienced an increase in patients with flu-like symptoms, said Tonda Verdejo, vice president of patient care services.

"We've certainly seen more in the last week to 10 days," she said. "Some are being treated and sent home, while others, based on age and other issues, are being admitted."

A spokeswoman for Dean Clinic said flu-like symptoms have increased patient volume by about 20 percent.

The providers are treating patients with routine respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses that typically appear this time each year.

But the flu symptoms, Verdejo said, are clear: fever, body and headaches combined with respiratory ails such as a persistent cough, runny nose and sore throat.

Verdejo and Konkol said their facilities are treating people who received the flu vaccine.

"The vaccine is only about 60 percent effective," said Konkol, who routinely offers his patients the flu shot each fall. "We've got some people in the hospital who got the shot.

"I got five calls on Monday from people who didn't want the shot last fall who want it now."

Both hospitals have taken steps to stem the spread of the disease, primarily through signs or electronic billboards encouraging sick hospital visitors to rethink their visit.

Masks are available at both facilities for those who might be infected, as well as those who don't want to become infected.

Verdejo said staff at St. Mary's have been instructed to pay close attention to visitors who are coughing excessively or showing other symptoms of the flu. They are being asked to leave the hospital and seek treatment.

"Most people are understanding," she said. "We haven't had any issues."

For those not suffering from the flu, Verdejo and Konkol said people should get the flu shot, which still is available, wash their hands repeatedly and avoid crowded spaces.

And for those who are sick?

"Stay away from work or school," Konkol said.

Flu usually doesn't blanket the nation until late January or February, but it is already widespread in more than 40 states.

What's probably complicating the situation: The main influenza virus this year tends to make people sicker. And there are other bugs out there causing flu-like illnesses. So what people are calling the flu may, in fact, be something else.

"There may be more of an overlap than we normally see," said Dr. Joseph Bresee, who tracks the flu for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu's early arrival coincided with spikes in a variety of other viruses, including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes what some people call "stomach flu."

Most people don't undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it's sometimes hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, or even a cold. Over the holidays, 250 people were sickened at a Mormon missionary training center in Utah, but the culprit turned out to be a norovirus, not the flu.

Flu is a major contributor, though, to what's going on.

"I'd say 75 percent," said Dr. Dan Surdam, head of the emergency department at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Wyoming's largest hospital. The 17-bed ER saw its busiest day ever last week, with 166 visitors.

The early onslaught has resulted in a spike in hospitalizations, prompting hospitals to take steps to deal with the influx and protect other patients from getting sick, including restricting visits from children, requiring family members to wear masks, and banning anyone with flu symptoms from maternity wards.

One hospital in Allentown, Pa., this week set up a tent for a steady stream of patients with flu symptoms.

But so far, "what we're seeing is a typical flu season," said Terry Burger, director of infection control and prevention for the hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Last updated: 8:04 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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