by Ean Jury
Come January, “flu” is the word that emergency-room physicians utter in diagnosis over and over again to their patients. And this year is no different. While flu season officially began only a few weeks ago, the illness has already killed 21 children and 54 adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) estimates that there will be an additional 28,909 flu-induced deaths by the end of the year. Spreading faster and deadlier than it has in over a decade, influenza has already reached epidemic levels in several states.
According to Dr. Jim Sample, an emergency physician, at Westmoreland-Hospital’s Emergency Room, “The hospital has been bombarded with flu-positive-patient admissions since the start of the year. We’re having a hard time keeping up with the constant influx of sick patients. Capacity in the hospital is nearly full, so as a department, we are responsible for holding a majority of the admitted patients in the E.R. until a bed becomes available upstairs.”
Since many admissions are being held in the E.R., waiting times to see a medical provider are averaging two to three hours.
“For the past few weeks, the emergency department has been holding up to 36 patients, so that’s 36 rooms that cannot be used for medical providers to see patients,” said Dr. Sample. “Even though we have the proper staffing to see the increase in patients, we do not have available beds to see them all.”
Since the emergency room seems to be packed with sick patients, what protective measures can we take to avoid contracting the flu and ending up in the emergency room?
Most physicians would recommend the flu shot as the best weapon against catching the virus. According to the C.D.C., however, this year’s flu shot is proving to be less effective in fighting against the mutated strain. In fact, 95 percent of all reported flu cases this year have been caused by the H3N2 strain. In general, the flu shot has been 26 percent effective for children, 12 percent for adults 18-49, and 14 percent for the elderly.
“While the flu shot may not cover all strains of the flu this year, it is still essential that everyone get a shot, especially the elderly,” said Dr. Scott Harter, Director of Latrobe Emergency Room. “The flu shot might not be as effective as it has been in previous years, but the shot still minimizes the likelihood of contracting the flu and makes the symptoms less severe if you do get it.”
Besides the flu shot, what other precautions can we exert to help avoid contracting influenza?
“The flu is viral, meaning it’s highly contagious and incurable by antibiotics, so not contracting it can be tricky. For example, college students can be sitting next to someone in class who has the flu and not realize it,” said Dr. Sample. “The best precaution against the flu is washing your hands. Constantly. Wash your hands for at least one minute every chance you can, especially when you’re around a large group of people. Try not to touch door knobs and if you do, go and wash your hands immediately. Also never put your fingers in your mouth. Other than the flu shot, there is really nothing else you can do to prevent the flu.”