Despite two children already dead this flu season, New York is better off than some states.
In Michigan, for example, three children have died. In Massachusetts, 18 people are dead. In Pennsylvania, nearly two dozen people are dead. Nationwide, 18 children are dead from the flu. In some pockets of the nation, overcrowding has caused emergency rooms to turn people away or set up makeshift ER facilities outside of hospitals.
The flu arrived early and in full force this season, and is shaping up to be one of the worst the nation has seen in a decade.
“We’ve had some very bad flu cases that have caused a secondary illness like a bad pneumonia or even a heart attack,” said Dr. Daniel Pauze, medical director at Albany Medical Center’s emergency department. “We see people with severe dehydration, who can’t take in fluids or are too weak to get up.”
The flu is unpredictable. So while some areas of the Capital Region appear to be seeing more severe cases than others, every area hospital is doing what it can to prevent the spread of influenza — from limiting visitors to asking sick people to stay home to requiring staff to wear face masks.
More than 100 patients have been admitted to Albany Med with the flu so far this season.
“That’s higher than last year by a significant margin,” said Pauze.
Anyone who walks in with flu-like symptoms is required to wear a mask. He said the cases aren’t too severe unless the patient is young, elderly or has an underlying condition like asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The state Department of Health recommends all people 6 months and older get an influenza vaccination. The 2012-2013 flu vaccine protects against three different flu viruses — an H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the H1N1 virus.
The primary strain this season is the H3N2, an influenza A virus that historically has caused a more aggressive flu season.
“It certainly seems a bit more severe this year,” said Pauze. “With the exception of H1N1 in 2009, the last two years have been somewhat of a lull and we hadn’t seen much flu at all, so things this year seem comparatively more severe.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has characterized this year’s flu season as moderately severe so far, with 41 states reporting widespread outbreaks and an unusually high demand for flu vaccine.
What’s probably complicating the situation is that the main influenza virus this year tends to make people sicker. And there are other bugs out there causing flulike illnesses. So what people are calling the flu may, in fact, be something else.
“There may be more of an overlap than we normally see,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, who tracks the flu for the CDC.
The flu’s early arrival in the United States coincided with spikes in a variety of other viruses, including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes what some people call “stomach flu.” Most people don’t undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, or even a cold.
Area physicians say the uptick for them began in early December and only continues to grow.
At Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, 111 confirmed flu cases were recorded since the season began. Only those patients with acute illnesses were admitted, though.
“If you test positive for the flu, it depends what else you have going on that will determine whether or not you are admitted,” said Dr. Dave Liebers, an infectious disease specialist at Ellis Medicine.
In fact, area health officials are urging people not to overwhelm their local emergency rooms if they’re experiencing flu-like symptoms — fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Instead, they encourage people to visit their primary care physician.
“If you have the flu and you’re 35 or 45 years old with no serious symptoms like difficulty breathing or pain in your chest, there’s no reason to panic,” said Saratoga Hospital spokeswoman Ellen Kerness. “But if you have severe signs, especially if you’re much older or much younger, that’s when you should be admitted.”
Saratoga Hospital officials are implementing new visitation rules in the midst of the current flu outbreak: no children 12 years of age or younger; no visitors with respiratory symptoms, rash or diarrhea; and no more than two visitors allowed per patient.
These restrictions have been the unspoken rule at St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam for some time now, said spokeswoman Jerri Cortese. Staff met Thursday afternoon to devise a precautionary plan for the current scourge, and decided to stiffen enforcement of visitor rules.
“We have mask gear in our lobbies and entrances that you can put on right when you come in,” Cortese said.
Right now, officials at the Amsterdam hospital are worried about their local nursing homes. Consisting largely of immobile, elderly populations, nursing homes are possibly one of the worst places for someone with flu symptoms to visit.
Cortese said she’s heard mention of River Ridge Living Center possibly having a flu outbreak, but she couldn’t verify that information Thursday night and a nurse at the center declined to comment after administrative officials had left for the day.
St. Mary’s Wilkinson Center hasn’t experienced anything out of the ordinary this flu season. But staff are considering asking residents at the 160-bed nursing home to forgo eating in the dining hall and take their meals back to their room as a precautionary measure against catching the flu, Cortese said.
“The residents aren’t coming and going very often,” she said. “We fear that if visitors come in with symptoms, it will pass through and since the residents don’t get out, once you have it, it stays and passes easily. So we’re very, very careful with our nursing homes.”
On average, about 24,000 Americans die from influenza each flu season, according to the CDC.
Most people with flu have a mild illness and can help themselves and protect others by staying home and resting. But people with severe symptoms should see a doctor. They may be given antiviral drugs or other medications to ease symptoms.
The last bad flu season involved a swine flu that hit in two waves in the spring and fall of 2009. But that was considered a unique strain, different from the regular winter flu.