More than 3,000 people visited Maryland emergency rooms in the past week with influenza-like illnesses amid what state and federal health officials are calling the worst flu season in years.
The flu is so bad that many local hospitals are asking most sick people to avoid the emergency room and limiting visitors to prevent its spread.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that this flu season is on pace to be among the worst in modern times, with more cases and more hospitalizations and weeks left to go.
More than 16 children died from the virus in the last week, bringing the number of pediatric deaths to 53 since October, CDC officials said. No children have died in Maryland, but an adult patient being treated for the flu died last week at Frederick Memorial Hospital.
Hospitals around the country and in Maryland are being overwhelmed with cases. The 3,000 new ER visits in the past week reported by the state Health Department, bring the season’s total to more than 20,000.
The CDC expects more than 700,000 people could be hospitalized this season.
“This is a very difficult season, with the hospitalization the highest we’ve seen, and we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting CDC director.
In Maryland, so many people have gotten sick and sought hospital care that health and emergency officials, worried about overcrowding, are advising people to stay home and call their doctor and only go to an emergency room for “true emergencies.”
“If you feel like you have the flu, start talking to your doctor first, and the doctor can give you ideas about how to best manage it,” said Dr. Jonathan Hansen, chair of the emergency department at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Rosedale. “It will probably involve lots of fluids and staying away from others so they don’t get sick. ...Though, there are situations where more care may be needed.”
Hospitals still encourage people to come to the emergency room if they have severe symptoms or conditions that put them at risk for complications,
They said only those who are very old or young, have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk, or have serious symptoms such as breathing problems or dehydration should seek emergency care. The antiviral drug Tamiflu works best at reducing symptoms in the first 48 hours.
Hospitalizations across the country largely have been among those aged 50 or older, or younger than 5. Half of the children who have died had no underlying health conditions, the CDC said.
Most people, however, recover at home. Doctors said people should call their doctors before going to the hospital and treat themselves if possible for fever, aches and lethargy with lots of fluids and pain relievers such as Tylenol or Motrin.
To stem the spread of the flu virus, hospitals are seeking to reduce traffic through their facilities.
Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Carroll Hospital Center, most University of Maryland Medical System institutions and Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, for example, have instituted visitor restrictions including reduced hours and limits on children on the campuses.
Many hospitals have placed masks, hand sanitizers and informational posters at entrances.
Emergency rooms statewide reported 20,127 visits for flu-like symptoms, according to the state Health Department’s latest report Friday. A voluntary reporting system among 25 doctors’ offices in the state show there were 2,606 visits for influenza-like illnesses this season through Jan. 20.
Tracking the total number of cases is nearly impossible because most people are not tested. While there’s been one adult death related to the flu in Maryland, such numbers are not tallied nationally.
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There are usually hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations annually due to the flu and tens of thousands of deaths, including those in previously healthy people, said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System. The difference this season is that the flu season began in earnest a few weeks earlier around the December holidays and quickly spread to most states.
“People don’t realize how many people get the flu every year and how many people die,” she said. “It’s always a serious problem that we try and combat by getting people vaccinated and using very standard infection prevention strategies like washing hands and staying home when sick.”
CDC officials say this year’s influenza vaccine is not a good match for one of the circulating strains, H3N2, though infectious disease specialists still recommend vaccination to ward off other strains and to reduce symptoms in those who do get the flu.
The CDC says warning signs that require an emergency visit in children include fast or troubled breathing, bluish skin color, trouble waking, no tears and dehydration, extreme irritability, flu symptoms that improve and then worsen, and fever with a rash.
Adult warning signs include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting and flu symptoms that improve and then worsen. This could be a sign of a secondary infection.
Maragakis said it’s likely to be another few weeks before cases begin to decline in Maryland.
“So it’s not too late to get a flu shot,” she said. “Even with reports of lower effectiveness, it does provide protection.”