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Patrick Springer, Published January 16 2013

Flu bug has local hospitals at capacity

FARGO – Local hospitals are at capacity with an influx of inpatients driven in part by a spike in admissions caused by the flu.

Both Sanford Medical Center and Essentia Health have been full for the past couple of weeks, as a major influenza outbreak continues with no sign of abating.

“We’ve certainly admitted a lot of patients with the flu and complications with the flu,” including dehydration and pneumonia, Dr. Augusto Alonto, chairman of infectious disease at Sanford Health, said Wednesday.

Local emergency rooms and walk-in clinics remain busy seeing patients with flu symptoms, which include fever, body aches, cough, runny nose and sometimes difficulty breathing.

For instance, Sanford’s adult walk-in clinic typically sees from 200 to 260 patients a day. During this flu season, the peak so far has been 340, compared to the previous record of 320.

“It just won’t die out,” said Dr. Tony Hamilton, an emergency room physician at Essentia Health. “It just keeps coming in waves.”

At times, the Essentia ER is so busy that it can’t immediately provide a bed for flu patients with severe symptoms or complications, he said.

“We’re not used to that,” Hamilton added.

Patients ending up in the hospital with flu typically are the elderly, very young children, people with asthma or other respiratory conditions, as well as people with weak immune systems, Hamilton and Alonto said.

Both Hamilton and Alonto said physicians have stopped ordering tests for patients who present with influenza symptoms, so official tallies of flu cases are significantly underreported.

In North Dakota, more than 1,600 confirmed flu cases have been reported, with four deaths. In Minnesota, more than 1,200 people have been hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed flu, and 27 deaths have been recorded.

Health officials said flu vaccine supplies are adequate in most locations, although some pharmacies have run out, so people are advised to call.

“Don’t give up because there are providers out there that have vaccine,” said Molly Howell, immunization director for the North Dakota Department of Health.

In Fargo-Moorhead, Essentia, Sanford, Clay County and Fargo-Cass Public Health all have adequate supplies of vaccine so far.

“We’ll keep vaccinating people as long as we’re seeing people infected with the flu,” Alonto said. “It’s never too late.”

It takes about 10 days after vaccination to become effective, however.

People should call their provider or public health clinic to schedule an appointment for a flu shot.

The most active period of flu season usually lasts from six to eight weeks, and the current epidemic began a month ago, during the holiday season, so it should ebb in the next few weeks, said Lindsey VanderBusch, influenza surveillance coordinator at the North Dakota Department of Health.

“Right now we’re still seeing increasing activity,” she said.

Anyone with flu symptoms should avoid visiting people in the hospital. Those with the flu should stay away from work or school until they are free of a fever for at least 24 hours, VanderBusch said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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