xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Earlier, more severe flu season hits Maryland

A Walgreens employee holds a syringe during a free flu shot clinic.
A Walgreens employee holds a syringe during a free flu shot clinic. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

It's shaping up to be a nasty flu season, with an earlier start and more severe cases, according to hospitals that have begun limiting visitors in an attempt to stem infections.

On Monday, Anne Arundel Medical Center became the latest to bar children and those who have mild flu symptoms, such as coughs and aches, from visiting other patients, citing a high volume of patients with influenza.

Advertisement

Sinai and Northwest hospitals, both part of the LifeBridge Health system, and Johns Hopkins Hospital are among the others that already had limited visitors. Still more are considering similar restrictions.

"Hospitals don't want people with respiratory illness visiting people who are sick," said Dr. Trish M. Perl, senior epidemiologist for Johns Hopkins Health System. "Our primary goal is the health of our patients, and we're really asking people not to visit. We're making sure we put signs up, and if we see you have symptoms, we're asking you to come back another day."

Advertisement
Advertisement

Health officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had warned about a higher number and more severe cases of flu this year. They said that one of the strains included in this year's vaccine, H3N2, had "drifted," or genetically changed, making the vaccine less effective.

H3 strains also are linked to more hospitalizations, CDC officials said.

Generally, healthy people recover from the flu at home without a doctor or hospital visit and are not tested. But hospital officials are reporting that among those who come to the emergency department and are admitted, most have the H3 strain.

And most are elderly, said Dr. Mary Clance, Anne Arundel Medical Center epidemiologist. In general, the flu poses the most danger to those over 75, as well as the very young and those with underlying health conditions.

Advertisement

Others are typically uncomfortable for up to a week with fever, cough and aches. Clance and other doctors recommend that symptoms be treated with fluids and painkillers such as ibuprofen at home, unless the sick person is having trouble breathing, has a high or prolonged fever, or relapses after getting better — an indication of pneumonia or other secondary illness.

"Stay home, don't even go to the doctor," she said. "Going to the doctor or emergency department can overwhelm the health system and impair health care."

Doctors recommend the antiviral medication Tamiflu only to those who are hospitalized. It may lessen symptoms in some people if administered within 48 hours, but supplies are limited every year and some physicians question its effectiveness for those less ill.

No deaths have been reported in Maryland, but as of the second week of December, 8,713 people had visited emergency departments with flu-like symptoms, or 3 percent of all emergency visits, according to state data. The number and percentage are well ahead of last year and have been climbing for the past few weeks in all corners of the state.

Federal and local officials are still advising people to get the flu vaccine to protect from other strains circulating. Even those with H3 strains may see some benefit from the vaccine, they say.

"If people haven't been vaccinated, there is still time," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, outgoing state health secretary. "It is not a perfect match, but it provides protection. And everybody should still be taking a lot of care to wash their hands and cover their coughs — and stay home if you're sick."

For the most part, those who visit the emergency department with flu-symptoms are sent home to recover, said Karen Lancaster, spokeswoman for the University of Maryland Medical Center. The hospital has not restricted visitors, nor have MedStar hospitals, such as Good Samaritan or Franklin Square, though they are busier with flu-like illnesses, as are MedStar's Union Memorial and Harbor hospitals.

"It hit pretty hard just before Christmas and hasn't let up yet," said Dr. Jonathan Hansen, chief of the Franklin Square emergency department.

Helene King, spokeswoman for LifeBridge Health, said the system's hospitals also are seeing more flu-like cases as well as enteroviruses, which have symptoms similar to a cold and can be more serious for children with asthma.

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. McDaniels contributed to this article.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement