Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the Department of Health, said that the number of hospitalizations because of the flu as of Tuesday, Jan. 23 was 295, up 92 from last Wednesday and another 90 from the week prior.
In a conference call last Wednesday morning Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said that the state officially became an area of “widespread” flu activity on Jan. 3, a trend happening nationally as well.
The virus that she said was the most common strain of the flu this year is H3N2, and what she called an influenza outbreak has created an overflow in hospitals around the state, specifically Rhode Island Hospital, Miriam hospital, and as Care New England spokesman James Beardsworth reported recently, Kent Hospital as well.
“Wait times are longer in certain hospitals,” Alexander-Scott said. “Emergency departments have seen extremely high volumes since the new year as well.”
There have also been two deaths in the state because of the flu. Alexander-Scott added in the conference call that there have also been 20 pediatric deaths across the country so far.
This influx in hospitalizations is caused by more people experiencing flu symptoms both nationally and in the state as a cause of a lack of vaccinations, in her opinion and the opinion of other health officials around the country who were on the conference call, including Larry Wolk, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment and Karen Smith, state public health officer in California.
Alexander-Scott expressed that the best way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated – which it is still not too late to do because the flu season continues into March. Additional actions, like washing hands and practicing good cough hygiene (coughing into the crook of your elbow rather than into your hands) help as well.
“The flu vaccine is the best defense we have against the flu,” she said.
Wendelken added that the DOH won’t actually know how effective the flu vaccine is against the current strands of flu that are circulating until the end of the flu season.
“That being said,” he continued, “We know two things. One is that year in and year out the best protection that people have against the flu is the flu vaccine. The other is that if someone should get the flu, it [the vaccine] will help their case be immensely less severe.”
In terms of what the DOH and the state can do to avoid an overflow of hospitals, Alexander-Scott talked about working with EMS services and the hospitals themselves to make sure everyone gets the care they need.
Wendelken added that if a hospital can’t except more EMS transports, they go on something called diversion. The DOH will communicate and coordinate with EMS teams to send them to hospitals that aren’t on diversion, as long as the patient’s health needs allow for a longer transport.
“Miriam and Rhode Island Hospital are the two we’ve been communicating with most closely because they’ve requested some assistance from us,” he said. “But generally speaking hospitals are seeing a lot of traffic. There’s lots of virus circulating.”
In addition to the work the DOH is doing to mitigate hospital overflow, Alexander-Scott also said that patients can help the cause if they do come down with flu symptoms by going to their primary care physicians, or even a walk-in clinic, before going to a hospital. Flu symptoms can be diagnosed and treated at these places the same as they would be at the hospitals, she said, as long as the patient doesn’t need acute care.
Wolk, during the press conference, talked about that treatment that flu patients can get, which includes influenza antiviral medications including Tamiflu and Relenza. Alexander-Scott pointed out that there isn’t any type of shortage of antivirals in Rhode Island currently, so they are available for flu patients.
Jim Blumenstock, Chief of Health Security for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said this about the flu outbreak and flu prevention:
“The flu is a perennial threat and in some years it threatens our health safety more than others. Vaccination, proper handwashing, cough hygiene and monitoring personal health are the best protection strategy for families. And seeking the appropriate level of medical attention when symptoms are there.”