Winter flu season descends on Tacoma hospitals

It’s midday in the emergency departments at Tacoma’s two largest hospitals, Tacoma General/Mary Bridge and St. Joseph Medical Center, and all is relatively calm.

But the staffs at the two hospitals are bracing for what has become in the past two months a daily surge of patients beginning in late afternoon and extending into the night. Many of those patients will complain of respiratory ailments, coughs, sore throats and congestion in some cases accompanied by fever, aches and pains and even gastric distress.

It’s the cold and flu season when people, crowded into schools and offices and public venues to escape the cold and damp, unintentionally share the viruses that make them sick and prompt the trip to the emergency rooms, doctors’ offices and urgent care clinics throughout the region for help staving off the symptoms and defeating the diseases.

The greatest influx of patients with cold and flu-like symptoms occurs later in the afternoon when parents decide their children’s ailments aren’t going away or when their personal battles with the energy-draining symptoms aren’t bearing fruit.

Many, aware of the statistics about the death toll from flu around the country, are concerned that their illness could lay them low for a long time or, in extreme cases, be fatal.

In Pierce County this year, for instance, with the flu season just two months old, 10 people including one 5-year-old child, have died of the flu. In the state, 22 deaths have been attributed to the flu. Nationally, the figures are not yet compiled, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects thousands will die of influenza during the winter flu season.

Most of those who die from the flu are in two age categories, the elderly and the young. The elderly typically have other medical issues that make them less able to fight off the virus that causes the flu. The young may not have fully developed immune systems.

When the numbers are totaled later in the spring when the flu season has waned, the CDC expects the 2014-2015 flu season to have been more widespread and deadly than usual. Nationwide, the CDC expects this flu season may be the worst since 2009.

Already, the center says that 46 of the 50 states including Washington are reporting widespread flu outbreaks with only California, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii reporting only localized concentrations of the flu.

In MultiCare Health System’s network that includes such hospitals as Tacoma General, Mary Bridge, Good Samaritan, Allenmore and Auburn plus a network of clinics throughout the region, more than 1,000 cases of influenza have been diagnosed in November and December, according to Dr. James Polo, physician executive for Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital.

At St. Joseph Medical Center, Dr. Aaron Laird, the emergency department’s medical director, said that hospital is seeing an increasing volume of patients who are arriving with flu-like symptoms.

A majority of those who arrive in the emergency departments complaining of breathing difficulties, coughs and mild fevers prove to be the victims of unusually persistent versions of the common cold. About 25 percent may be true flu victims.

Hospitals determine whether a person is suffering from the flu by swabbing the back of the throat and performing lab tests.

Short of that scientific test, the flu often acts like a cold but with more severe symptoms: a significant fever, multiple aches and pains, fatigue and breathing difficulties, said local emergency room physicians.

“If you’ve ever had the flu, you’ll remember it,” said Laird. “Many experience what they call ‘bone-crushing’ aches and pains and severe breathing difficulties that feel like your lungs are glued together.”

At Tacoma General, 26-year-old Crystal Warren of Tacoma Tuesday evening visited the emergency department after an urgent care clinic in her neighborhood referred her there.

Warren, who is 20 weeks pregnant, had suffered from a respiratory ailment for 10 days before she decided she needed help to overcome it. She worried that she might have the flu, a particular concern because of her pregnancy.

Her fiancé and her son had suffered from a respiratory ailment like hers but had recovered in three or four days.

After multiple tests both of her and her unborn child, the hospital concluded she was suffering from just an unusually difficult cold. They provided her with some medications and sent her home where she reported Wednesday she was feeling better.

For those who are diagnosed with the flu, there is no magic bullet, no drug, that can quickly cure the disease, said Dr. Elizabeth Wheeler, physician executive for Tacoma General and Allenmore hospitals.

The treatment regimen consists of providing the patient with supportive care while their body fights off the virus. That care typically includes anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu, which can shorten the duration and severity of the illness if taken early in the disease’s progression.

That supportive care in some cases includes breathing assistance and fluids to help the body cope with the disease.

Flu patients under normal circumstances spend two to three days in the hospital before they’re well enough to return home, said Wheeler and Polo.

Doctors at St. Joseph, Tacoma General and Mary Bridge strongly recommended that people who want to avoid the flu should receive the season’s flu vaccine.

“In my many years of practice, I’ve seen many people who died of the flu. All, with the exception of one, had not received the vaccine. That person, however, had leukemia,” said Wheeler.

This year’s vaccine, formulated months before the beginning of the flu season, has proven not to be a perfect match for all the varieties of flu that are prevalent this season.

Even so, said Polo, that vaccine provides immunization from some common varieties of the flu, and it will lessen the severity of the flu which it did not directly target.

Even those who were not inoculated early in the season still can benefit from the vaccine even now, said Laird.

Beyond the preventative shot, other measures can help people avoid the bug.

Hand washing, avoiding crowds of people and keeping away from those suffering from obvious respiratory symptoms can lessen the chances of contracting the flu, said medical experts.