Flu has doctors hopping

Published 8:21 pm Monday, January 5, 2015

With authorities reporting high levels of the virus in most of the United States, including here, Suffolk health facilities are running to keep up with mounting flu cases.

Emergency department patient volumes at Bon Secours Health Center at Harbour View are more than 50 percent greater than normal, according to department director Carl Wentzel on Monday.

“Most of that is flu patients,” Wentzel said. Up to 50 or 60 patients are arriving with flu or flu-like symptoms each day, he estimated.

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Wentzel said they’ve run out of tests used to diagnose flu. “The word is the supplies are critically low, and we will not get any new supplies anytime soon,” he said.

But running out of those is nothing unusual, according to Val Sommer, the emergency department’s nurse manager.

“Each year when we hit the (peak) season, we get to that point,” Sommer said. “It’s just happened sooner than expected” this season.

With no flu tests available, physicians are providing flu treatment for anyone with the symptoms, Wentzel said. “That has changed our numbers,” he added.

Antibiotics are not used to treat flu. But within 24 hours of developing symptoms, patients can be given Tamiflu antiviral medication, which shortens the 10- to 14-day illness by about 20 to 22 hours.

Wentzel said the decision to prescribe Tamiflu is made after educating a patient who is inside the window of opportunity on the potential benefits, which may or may not make it worthwhile.

Wentzel also said he understands Tamiflu supplies at area pharmacies are “critically low.” According to Ana Colon, area epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health, it’s a lack of availability due to high demand, rather than a supply shortage.

Colon suggested patients might find a pharmacy stocking the treatment by calling around.

All staff members at the Harbour View emergency department have gotten their flu shot, Sommer said. Though this year it hasn’t been as effective as it should, that has helped shorten the length of the illness for staff that have become infected, she added.

“We kind of prepared for it,” Sommer said. “Some additional staffing was available.

“But it does make it a little taxing, because there is no downtime at all. It’s run, run, run.”

Sentara hospitals in Hampton Roads, including Obici, are seeing nearly three times the flu cases they saw and treated last flu season, according to Sentara spokeswoman Cheri Hinshelwood.

“Certainly, we hope the community will help us by honoring area hospitals strongly recommending masks for patients and visitors entering hospitals, urgent care, emergency departments, clinics and primary care physician practices,” Hinshelwood stated.

Urgent care and family practices are also being kept busy. Donald Halke, a family physician there, said Lakeview Pediatrics and Family Medicine is averaging about 20 flu cases a day — the heaviest load since probably the 2011-2012 flu season.

“That’s out of an average of seeing about 200 patients a day, with all the providers working,” Halke said.

Halke said area Walgreens and CVS pharmacies are often running out of Tamiflu within days of new shipments arriving.

He also said Lakeview ran out of flu tests for a couple of days, but more because not enough were ordered than any supply issues.

“It does take a toll on us,” Halke said of staff keeping up to the load — and coming down with the flu themselves.

“We do end up becoming short-staffed. A few of our nurses were out last week, and we were pretty short-staffed.”

For those who haven’t already, it still isn’t too late to get a flu shot, which, as cited by Sommer, can also reduce severity of the illness.

Flu symptoms include high temperature, head and muscle aches, joint pain, sore throat and lethargy, and in some cases, nausea and even vomiting.

Colon recommended against an emergency room visit for the otherwise fit and healthy. But children, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions can be at greater risk of complications.

“If you have shortness of breath, go to the emergency room, because it can be serious,” Colon said.

Those with the flu should stay at home and in a different part of the house than other household members.

“It’s still out there and it’s still going strong,” Wentzel said.

“I went to the grocery store yesterday, and I pulled out one of the little handy wipes and wiped down the cart.”

Bon Secours spokeswoman Lynne Zultanky said gym-goers should wipe down exercise equipment before and after use.