Severe flu outbreak hits Suffolk

Published 10:25 pm Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Health care facilities across Hampton Roads are urging visitors to wear medical masks amid a flu season that is apparently much more severe than last year’s.

In Suffolk, since Dec. 16, Obici Hospital has been seeing more than 15 patients a day who have “influenza or lookalike influenza,” said Scott Miller, assistant vice president of medical affairs at Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk.

“Sometimes, the best you can say is ‘influenza-like illness,’” he said. “The flu is typically an illness that consists of a fever, cough … and body aches and pains. Often times (there’s also a) headache. If you don’t have those four (symptoms), I’m less worried about influenza.”

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At Obici, 8.8 percent of patients are infected with influenza or “lookalike influenza,” Miller said, while the proportion at Sentara BelleHarbour in North Suffolk is higher still at 17 percent.

“Last year, the volume was probably about a third of what it is currently,” he said. “Last year was one of those years when we just didn’t get the volume of influenza” that hospitals are experiencing now.

“Once in a while you get a bye like that. It came (last year) in about March-ish or the end of April. The volume of it was not at the level that we are seeing this time.”

In a joint news release on Wednesday, Sentara, Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, Chidlren’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, Riverside and Bon Secours, which operates North Suffolk’s Health Center at Harbour View, announced the “strong recommendation” for visitors to their facilities to wear medical masks to avoid spreading the flu.

“Hospitals and health care systems strongly recommend all patients and visitors wear a mask upon entering hospitals, freestanding emergency departments, urgent care centers, and branch clinics, including patients seeking outpatient services at the hospitals,” the release stated.

“A mask is also strongly recommended on arrival for patients and family members seeking care at associated primary care physician practices.”

“The recommendation to wear a mask when entering health care facilities will remain in effect during the flu season and while prevalence of flu in the region is extraordinarily high,” the release concluded.

The Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say flu activity this year is in the highest category.

“We went to an increased level (of cases) five weeks ago yesterday,” Miller said Wednesday, adding the outbreak would probably last another three to four weeks.

Hospitals and health systems are also asking those with flu-like symptoms, which can also include sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, not to visit area hospitals.

To avoid getting the flu or spreading it, wash your hands often, cough into a tissue or the inside of your elbow instead of your bare hand and get a flu shot, health officials suggest.