Washington is under attack from the flu virus, and hospitals all over the state are struggling to find beds for the sick. The state’s death toll stands at 24, including four from Pierce County.
Caught in the midst of the epidemic, some hospitals are canceling elective surgeries and sending patients to other facilities. The state, meanwhile, is urging only the sickest or at-risk flu patients to use emergency rooms.
Based on federal Centers for Disease Control statistics, Washington is part of one of the hardest hit regions in the United States. The region, which includes Oregon, Alaska and Idaho, had the highest rate of positive flu tests in the nation (27.4 percent) in the week ending Dec. 31. That’s a sharp increase from the previous week’s rate of 18.5 percent.
The next closest region was the Intermountain West at 15.2 percent.
Those numbers translate into more patients seeking help at health care facilities.
“They are seeing a high volume of patients,” said Nigel Turner, a communicable disease control expert with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “This is something that is partly due to the flu but also just a lot of other bugs around this time of year.”
Turner, who participated in a conference call Thursday with hospitals and health departments, said coordination among those agencies is an annual occurrence.
“But this may be a more severe year than we’ve seen in some recent times,” Turner said of the epidemic. “I haven’t seen it at this level in a number of years.”
“From that call it does sound like many of those hospitals are working at capacity,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer at the Health Department.
“(Sick) people are taking their beds,” said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for the hospital association.
Hospitals are activating “surge plans,” Clunies-Ross said. The plans are used for a mass-casualty event but also for general overcrowding in emergency departments.
“A surge plan includes canceling elective surgeries, for example,” she said. Surgical beds then can be used for patients coming from the emergency department.
Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett has opened a satellite emergency room to handle more patients, KOMO TV reported.
“We are actively looking at things to do if things should get worse from where they are now,” Lofy said. That might include opening a hot line to direct callers to the best medical care option.
Clunies-Ross predicts visitor restrictions might soon go into place at hospitals. Those prohibit visitors (but not patients) with the flu from entering.
“That’s just because the flu is so contagious,” she said.
Also affecting the system are flu outbreaks at long-term health care facilities. Those patients, most of whom are elderly, often are sent to hospitals when they become ill. Long-term care facilities reported 41 new outbreaks of influenza-like illnesses in the week ending Dec. 31.
The epidemic likely hasn’t peaked yet.
“I don’t think anyone thinks this is the high point,” Clunies-Ross said.
Health care providers say the best prevention against the flu is to get vaccinated. With the state in epidemic status, many people are rushing to get vaccinated.
Among them Friday were Gov. Jay Inslee and first lady Trudi Inslee. They were getting their flu shots Friday morning at a CVS pharmacy in Olympia.
Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said the couple’s schedules had prevented earlier vaccination.
“As with so many people, (they have) busy lives,” Smith said. “They’re going to (get vaccinated) today,”
NOW THAT YOU HAVE THE FLU...
What should you do if you start experiencing flu-like symptoms?
Health care experts stress that not all patients with influenza need to be seen by a health care provider. If you otherwise are healthy you usually can treat yourself or your child at home by getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids.
People younger than 5 or older than 65 and those with chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, heart failure or cancer or other groups of high risk for complications from the flu should seek medical attention.
Anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu works better the earlier it’s started in the course of a disease.
You most likely do not need to see a health care provider if you...
▪ Are 5 to 65 years old.
▪ Have no chronic medical illness.
▪ Have a fever that has lasted less than four days.
▪ Are not having difficulty breathing.
▪ Have no mental confusion or difficulty thinking.
▪ Have skin that is a normal color.
▪ Are not dizzy.
▪ Are not vomiting.
See a health care provider if you are experiencing:
▪ Fever greater than 100.4 degrees that’s lasted more than four days (fevers might be intermittent).
▪ Fever that went away but returned two or more days later.
▪ Coughing up mucus tinged with blood.
▪ Rattling chest sounds when taking a deep breath.
▪ Fainting spells, dizziness or severe dry mouth.
▪ Urinating less (or babies who have fewer than three wet diapers per 24 hours).
▪ You are pregnant.
Seek emergency medical attention if you are experiencing:
▪ Fast breathing or trouble breathing.
▪ Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen.
▪ Bluish or gray skin color.
▪ Severe or persistent vomiting.
▪ Not waking up or not interacting.
▪ Sudden dizziness.
▪ Unable to talk in full sentences.
▪ Children so irritable they do not want to be held.
Source: Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department