‘Tis the season Local hospitals handle influx of flu

By on January 16, 2013

By: RICHARD REITZ Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

The outbreak of influenza is headline news across the country, and locals are not immune to the trend.

"Volumes are up 20-40 percent in our emergency departments due to flu patients," said Dr. Erika Powell, ER medical director and physician at Heart of Lancaster Regional Medical Center in Lititz and Lancaster Regional Medical Center in Lancaster.

"We are definitely experiencing an influx of patients with flu-like symptoms among inpatients, emergency patients and patients in our physician practices over the past several weeks," added Joanne Eshelman, director of community relations at Ephrata Community Hospital. "These patients include people of all ages."

Despite the outbreak, no additional restrictions have been implemented at either hospital regarding visitation policies.

However, both hospitals have advice for people feeling a bit under the weather who are considering a non-medical visit to the hospital — stay home.

"We are just requesting that visitors use good judgment and not visit if they are exhibiting signs and symptoms of influenza," said Marla Konas, infection control director at Heart of Lancaster. Those symptoms could include fever, body aches, persistent cough or nausea.

"Maybe call the patient or send a card instead of coming to the hospital," she said.

Konas said they have posted signs in the hospital lobbies informing visitors that they should not interact with patients if they are feeling ill, reminding them to cover their mouth when they cough or use a mask when inside the facility. Protective masks are provided to visitors, and they should wash their hands or use the waterless hand cleaners before entering the patient room and on leaving.

"We are assessing daily to make sure that our patients and staff are protected," Konas added. She said they may restrict visitation at some point if they feel it is necessary to protect patients. Any change in that policy will be posted at the hospital and on its website.

"Patients who come to the emergency department with flu-like symptoms may be asked to wear a mask while they are waiting to be seen," Eshelman said regarding Ephrata’s policy. Patients who have not already received a flu shot may also be offered the vaccine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared a flu epidemic last Friday, and precautions are being urged nationwide by healthcare providers.

"At this point, I do not think we know why this year is worse," said Peg Holland, RN, infection control coordinator at Ephrata. "That information usually becomes available when the season has ended and the scientists have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate all the data."

Dr. Powell believes one cause is that the flu vaccine has not been as effective in preventing the virus, with the most severe cases found in patients with underlying medical diseases such as diabetes and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). She added that the sooner patients receive treatment, the better.

"Tamiflu is only effective in patients who seek treatment within 48 hours of symptom onset," she added. "Otherwise it is supportive care."

She said two viruses have been identified, including a stomach flu accompanied with sever vomiting and diarrhea. People with the stomach flu are seeking medical care for dehydration.

"We urge people to seek care before severe dehydration," Powell said. All pediatric patients under 5 and the elderly should be seen immediately. Hand washing and covering the mouth when coughing is key to preventing spread of illness.

"I would recommend people seek care if their fever is persistent, are unable to drink liquids and keep them down or experience or notice change in mental status," Holland added. More FLU, page A6

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