If you're suffering from a headache, fever, cough, aches and chills, you're not alone.
Seasonal flu cases are spiking throughout the region, sending an increasing number of patients to area emergency departments and doctors’ offices for relief.
Dr. Jose Poblete, an infectious disease physician who heads the infection control committee at Summa Health System, said it's been about a decade since the region faced such a severe influenza season, excluding the unusual H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.
“It has come down on us much earlier than usual,” he said. “We typically see an increase in emergency room visits for influenza-like illnesses in the month of January. This year, it was late November. It's at least four to six weeks ahead of schedule.”
Akron Children's Hospital recently boosted physician coverage in its emergency departments on the main campus and in its Boardman facility and hired six temporary pediatric-trained emergency room nurses from a staffing agency, said Lisa Aurilio, the hospital’s chief nursing officer and vice president of patient services. Next week, the hospital is adding another 10 temporary intensive-care nurses and four respiratory therapists to meet patient demand this flu season.
The temporary workers are in addition to 20 nurses hired since mid-October for the main campus in anticipation of increased patient volume during the winter months.
“We always know January, February and March are going to be busy times for sick kids,” Aurilio said.
Children’s treated nearly 3,000 more patients in its ERs in December than the same month the previous year, Aurilio said. The number of patients in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit last month also was up 14 percent from the previous year, with the majority of admitted patients battling respiratory and flu-like symptoms.
The hospital is ready to add 15 more general inpatient beds on the Akron campus if needed, she said.
Hospitals throughout Summit County reported 53 influenza-related admissions during the last week of December, compared to none the same time a year earlier, according to Summit County Public Health. A majority of the patients (36) were 65 or older.
“We know that with older patients, even if they get the influenza vaccine, it may not entirely protect against influenza,” said Dr. Marguerite Erme, medical director for the Summit County health department. “We also know that the older patients tend to have a variety of other illnesses that can be aggravated by any infection, particularly influenza infection.”
Statewide, 645 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases of influenza during the first week of January.
Hospitals throughout Summit, Stark, Portage and Medina counties enacted visitation restrictions last week to protect patients during the flu season.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza cases are increasing nationwide, with most of the nation experiencing high levels of flu-like illnesses.
About four out of every five positive test results sent to the CDC have been a type A strain that “tends to be more severe and more exclusively respiratory symptoms,” said Dr. Blaise Congeni, director of pediatric infectious disease at Akron Children's Hospital.
People with uncontrolled fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, extreme nausea and dehydration or underlying health problems such as lung disease or cancer should seek medical attention, said Dr. Gary Bollin, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of Akron General’s infection control program.
“If you've got a little bit of fever and a cough and a sore throat and you're able to maintain hydration, you're not short of breath or delirious, those are the kind of things you can take care of at home,” he said.
Most cases are strains covered in this season’s flu vaccine, Congeni said. So far, anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu continue to be effective.
It’s not too late to get vaccinated, though full immunity takes about two weeks, health experts said.
Because the flu hit the region earlier than in some previous seasons, experts are hopeful it also will leave the area sooner.
“This is increasing so rapidly, I hope and expect by February maybe we'll see things start to decrease,” Children's Congeni said.
Flu season technically continues through April, meaning other peaks are possible, Erme said. People should wash their hands, cover their coughs and stay home if they’re sick to reduce the spread of flu and other illnesses.
“Even when we get through this,” Erme said, “people need to take all the precautions for preventive measures and keeping themselves healthy.”
Beacon Journal medical writer Cheryl Powell can be contacted at 330-996-3902 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org