ALLENTOWN – Patients suffering from chills, fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, cough, sore throat – in other words, the flu – are swelling emergency rooms throughout Pennsylvania as state health officials report a large outbreak of the seasonal virus that has claimed 22 lives so far.
It’s the worst start to a flu season in nearly 20 years, by one hospital’s reckoning, and health officials predict the number of cases will continue to rise because flu season typically doesn’t peak until late January or early February.
“We haven’t peaked yet, and we don’t know when that’s going to occur,” Dr. Ram Nambiar, acting director of the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s bureau of epidemiology, said in an interview Thursday. “We’re seeing cases rise each week.”
The health department has designated influenza as “widespread” throughout the commonwealth, with more than 11,000 laboratory-confirmed cases since flu season began in mid-December. The past week saw a dramatic intensification, with nearly 4,300 new cases and 18 deaths.
The majority of the deaths were reported among Pennsylvanians older than 65, but two involved “otherwise healthy young individuals” under 50, the state said. Its numbers did not reflect last weekend’s death of an infant at Lehigh Valley Health Network from flu-like symptoms.
Hospitals said they’ve seen large numbers of patients showing up with the flu, especially since the beginning of the year.
Like other facilities, The Chester County Hospital in West Chester “has seen a huge influx of flu patients,” spokeswoman Colleen Leonard Leyden said. “We have not seen this level of flu at this point in the flu season in our facility for nearly 20 years.”
It’s easy to spot the flu patients at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia: They’re wearing yellow masks, and “they look like they are suffering,” said Dr. Paris Lovett, medical director of the emergency department.
Hospitals are trying to prevent the spread of the illness in their facilities by having patients with flu or flu-like symptoms wear masks and segregating them from other patients.
At Lehigh Valley Health Network’s main hospital campus in Allentown, officials went a step further this week, setting up an outdoors mobile “surge tent” a few feet from the emergency room in an effort to free up ER capacity and prevent the spread of the virus. Patients who show up with flu-like symptoms and don’t need to be admitted are escorted to the MASH-style field hospital for treatment.
“It was the safest and most reasonable idea,” said Terry Burger, the hospital’s director of infection control and prevention.
St. Luke’s University Health Network, meanwhile, has deployed its 40-foot-long mobile health van to help provide care during peak ER volume.
Doctors are treating severe cases with Tamiflu. Otherwise, the prescription is rest, fluids, over-the-counter pain medicine and time.
“In general, if you find you have the flu, it’s no fun. But if it’s only a mild illness, there’s really no need to go to the ER,” said Dr. Glenn Geeting, an emergency department physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “There’s only a limited amount of (treatment) an ER can offer.”
For mild symptoms, “often the best treatment is time,” Geeting said, adding that patients with more severe symptoms including dehydration, vomiting and shortness of breath should go to the emergency room.
A flu shot is the best way to prevent influenza, according to health officials. And if there’s a bright side to this already miserable flu season, it’s that it is not too late to get one.
“The one big plus about this particular strain is it’s matching to the current flu vaccine. So there is still ample opportunity to get your flu shot and still get protected,” said Nambiar, the health department epidemiologist.
Experts advise people to stay home if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms. Other recommendations from the Lehigh Valley Health Network include disinfecting common areas in the home or work area daily, and frequent use of hand sanitizer.
Also, there’s this bit of sage advice from Allison Hydzik of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: “Wash your hands and cover your cough – mom was right!”