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As flu quickly spreads, hospitals limit visits

January 6, 2015

    Clare Rizer, The Daily Briefing

    With flu levels already nearing "epidemic" levels, hospitals are taking early steps to manage the influx of additional patients and prevent further spread of the virus.

    According to CDC's latest flu report, the percentage of U.S. deaths attributed to pneumonia or the flu remain just below the epidemic threshold for the week ending Dec. 27. But the overall hospitalization rate since the beginning of flu season increased to 12.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 U.S. residents, up from 9.7 per 100,000 one week prior. 

    In total, 43 states have reported "widespread" flu activity, while six have reported "regional" activity and Hawaii has reported "sporadic" flu activity. But that data only shows geographic spread of the flu—not the severity of flu activity.

    A state's influenza-like (ILI) activity level does give an idea of severity because it's based on the percent of outpatient visits for ILI. CDC reports that 29 states and Puerto Rico are experiencing high ILI activity, while just nine are experiencing minimal activity.

    How hospitals are managing the outbreak

    Many hospitals are seeing an overflow of patients in their EDs because of the flu, with some hospitals caught off guard by the early spike in the flu season.

    At Dayton Children's Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, daily ED visits have increased from about 196 per day—the number the hospital budgets for—to nearly 300 daily. One night, the number of children in the ED for flu-like symptoms topped 389, according to CNO Renae Phillips.

    Similarly, Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Florida, said it is treating 12 to 15 patients for the flu each day, compared to four or five cases per day last year. Director of Emergency Medicine David Farcy says many such patients "say they did receive the vaccine," which suggests that the increased admissions could be attributed to strains not covered by this year's flu vaccine.

    CDC: The flu vaccine may not work well this year

    In light of the epidemic, many hospitals are asking friends and loved ones to limit their hospital visits to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

    For instance, Wisconsin-based ThedaCare and Affinity Health System—which have seen up to 10 times more flu hospitalizations this season than last—have requested limited visits and have urged any visitors to take precautionary measures, such as thoroughly washing hands before and after any visits.

    Mark Hallett, chief clinical officer for ThedaCare, explains, "If you do not need to be in the hospital, we ask that you protect hospitalized patients from exposure by not visiting unless necessary."

    Similarly, Christiana Care Health System, Bayhealth Medical Center, and Beebe Healthcare in Delaware have all altered their visiting policies. For instance, children under age 16 are not permitted to visit patients or patient areas at Beebe, while Bayhealth's Kent General Hospital and Milford Memorial Hospital have limited visits for children under age 12.

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