Welcoming in 2013 for a good many people in the area has come with a cough, a sneeze and a wheeze.
An active and early flu season hit large segments of the population starting in mid-December, and that sickness seemed to amplify to a greater degree after the new year – stockpiling emergency rooms, clinics and hospitals all over the area with ailing patients last week.
Dr. Dean Xerras, medical director at the Mass General-Chelsea, said they are currently diagnosing the flu as “ILI” (Influenza Like Illness) and it has given the flu season an early peak.
“We’re certainly seeing an increase in numbers of patients with ILI,” he said. “We’re trying to increase our capacity in the practices by increasing visits there. We’re also trying to triage patients over the phone to keep them out of the ERs if at all possible. We want the high-risk patients, elderly and children to be able to get in. This kind of started in November, but really took off in mid-December. It definitely has seen an uptick now.
“We could continue to see it increase,” he continued. “We usually see the peak of the season in February and March. We’re seeing the peak volumes now.”
At the Whidden Hospital, Dr. Assaad Sayah – chief of emergency medicine – said they have been seeing about 40 to 50 percent more than their typical budgeted volumes in the ER over the past three weeks. He added that there were a few days where they had 70 percent more than their budgeted volumes.
Nevertheless, even with the increases in patient loads, he said the ER at the Whidden isn’t turning people away or increasing wait times.
“To be honest, we don’t turn people away and we’ve done a tremendous amount of work in the last two years to prepare for this,” he said. “Even with this surge, there are very few people who are waiting more than five minutes. We’re very busy and our wait times are very low. We’ve figured out how to maintain our normal flows and also accommodate surges like this without instituting extra wait times. On the days when our volumes were up 70 percent, the wait times were still only about 30 minutes.”
The most common symptoms for ILI seem to be fever, persistent cough and a runny nose. In some cases, those symptoms are lasting for weeks at a time with no reprieve. That being the case, Sayah said medical professionals are particularly worried about vulnerable populations in this outbreak.
“The people we are most worried about are the young, the old and the people with chronic diseases,” he said. “Their reserves are not that great. They get really sick really quickly and they should seek help sooner rather than later. When we see them, if they’ve waited, they are really, really sick and we have to do more than just intravenous fluids. We recommend they come in right away.”
Added Xerras, “Elderly people can die; children can die. It’s no joke.”
At the MGH-Chelsea, the increased volumes are being handled by routing the healthier patients to primary care doctors rather than the ER – which is being reserved for the most vulnerable.
“We’re definitely trying to prevent people from coming in and so we’re increasing access for people in our practices to keep high numbers of people out of the Urgent Care,” said Xerras. “For young, healthy people there are ways to treat at home that are successful.”
He said one prescription medication that has been successful is Tamiflu.
Both Xerras and Sayah said one of the best things people can do is get the flu shot, which is still available.
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” said Xerras. “We still have vaccine and recommend everyone get their flu shot.”
Some of the common sense precautions that both doctors recommended are to stay out of public places that have lots of people if possible, wash hands often (especially after touching door handles or gas pumps), stay hydrated with juice and get plenty of rest.
“The worst thing anyone can do is panic,” said Sayah. “It’s not a deadly disease for most people.”