Dr. William Moore, regional medical director for East Texas Medical Center EMS and emergency room physician, said the influx is a combination of people with upper respiratory infections, including, pneumonia, influenza, allergies and the common cold.
“My last shift was this weekend, and we saw a few flu cases. What we are seeing now is so many ill patients for so many reasons pneumonia, etc. — very elderly patients with multiple diagnosis are basically bottlenecking our emergency rooms,” Moore said.
The hospital has gone on “divert” several times this week, meaning the hospital has run out of rooms. Moore said once ETMC goes on divert, Mother Frances Hospital and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler also can go on “divert” as hospitals work to serve patients. Once that happens, ambulances begin to alternate which hospital patients are taken to and the hospitals begin working together to take care of them all.
Moore said not to worry though, because the hospital is fully capable of handling trauma patients. He said to prevent infections and promote healing, sick patients are kept separately from trauma and surgery patients to help prevent infection.
“I do love having people working over at Mother Frances,” Moore said. “They are my competitors, but without them my day would be horrible. They keep me sane by seeing some of the patients. They do great work, and they are my friends.”
Patients can wait for long periods of time to see a doctor in the emergency room, and Moore said the hospital is suggesting people who think they are infected should see their primary care provider first. The ER should be the last resort, or for those who are severely ill, elderly, immune, very young and those with compromised immune systems.
The flu season came early this year, peaking in December as opposed to February with a reported 12 percent of hospital visits for “influenza-like illnesses,” according to the most recent Texas Influenza Surveillance Report from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The year 2009-10 was slightly higher with more than 13 percent of visits for flu-like sickness.
Influenza A is the dominate strain in Texas, with 54.2 percent of diagnoses, while Influenza B affected 45.8 percent of patients, the report states.
Three Texans have died this year from the flu, according to the report, faring better than other states.
Boston declared a public health emergency Wednesday as flu season struck in earnest and the state reported 18 flu-related deaths so far.
The city is working with health care centers to offer free flu vaccines and also hopes to set up places where people can get vaccinated. The city said there had been four flu-related deaths, all elderly residents, since the unofficial start of the flu season Oct. 1.
“The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is to get the flu shot,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said.
The city was experiencing its worst flu season since at least 2009, Menino said, with about 700 confirmed cases of the flu, compared with 70 all of last season.
Massachusetts was one of 29 states reporting high levels of “influenza-like illness,” according to the most recent weekly flu advisory issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The estimated rate of flu-related hospitalizations in the U.S. was 8.1 per 100,000 people, which is high for this time of year, according to Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch of the CDC's influenza division. The agency's next advisory will be issued Friday.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the Boston public health commission, said the emergency was declared in part to get residents' attention. She said that the 700 confirmed cases represent only those reported to the city and that thousands of other people may be ill.
Boston hospitals had counted about 1,500 emergency room visits since December by people with flu-like symptoms. Menino said people with symptoms should not go to work or school.
Frederica Williams, president of the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston's inner-city Roxbury neighborhood, said her facility had opened a special flu clinic and was using social media and sending letters to residents urging them to come in and get flu shots.
“We serve a vulnerable population that is at risk for all kinds of health issues, so we put out a broadcast to our patients even before the mayor made the (emergency) announcement because we saw an increase in the number of people coming to our clinic for services,” said Williams, who estimated that the number of patients coming to the clinic with flu-like symptoms was triple that of a year ago.
Hospitals around the state were also taking precautions to protect patients and staff members from exposure to the flu.
Baystate Health, which operates Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and two other hospitals in western Massachusetts, announced it was changing its visitor policy. The hospitals will no longer allow visitors younger than 14 and are recommending no more than two people visit a patient at one time.
City, state and federal officials have all identified a Type A influenza known as H3N2 as the predominant strain reported so far this season. The strain, historically associated with more serious illnesses, is among those covered by the current vaccine.
High flu rates were being reported in all areas of Massachusetts, Cranston said, and while he did not have specifics on the 18 statewide deaths, he noted that the flu is most dangerous for young children, the elderly and people with other chronic health conditions.
As of Friday's report, the CDC said 18 children had died from the flu so far this season. While the CDC does not keep a tab of deaths overall from the flu, it estimates that 24,000 Americans die each year.
The best way to prevent getting sick is to get a flu shot, said Stephanie Taylor, spokeswoman for the Northeast Texas Public Health District.
“Practice personal protection,” Mrs. Taylor said. “The best way to protect yourself against the flu is to get the flu shot, wash your hands and stay home if you're sick.”
It takes about two weeks for the human body to form antibodies to the virus, and receiving the shot does not necessarily mean a person is immune to getting the virus, Mrs. Taylor said.
“The strain we see the most of is an exact match with the flu shot …” she said. “If you have the shot, the virus can continue to mutate, but it will be much less severe than it would have been without the shot.”
She said it is not too late in the flu season to get the vaccine.
“We still have about 100 doses here, and they are $20,” Mrs. Taylor said. “They are first come, first serve.”
Staff Writer Faith Harper contributed to this report