Flu takes toll on Mustang

By Traci Chapman
Published on February 28, 2008

Packed doctors offices and hospitals filled to capacity tell the story: there is no end in sight for Oklahoma’s influenza outbreak.

State health officials said Tuesday the level of influenza cases across Oklahoma remained “widespread” for the fourth consecutive week, as area hospital staffs and doctors scrambled to meet the influx of patients.

“This has been a more severe flu year than we’ve seen in quite some time,” Kristy Bradley, Oklahoma state epidemiologist, said. “As a comparison, last year we only had two weeks at the widespread level. With four weeks at this level and no real indication of cases lessening, it’s significant.”

The increase in flu cases this year was caused in part because this season’s round of flu shots were aimed at strains not “matched by what’s being seen by medical providers,” Bradley said.

Leslea Bennett-Webb, director of the Oklahoma State Department of Health Office of Communications, said flu strains included in the vaccine are determined each year by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The committee uses data from the southern hemisphere’s flu season, as well as analysis of strains seen the previous year, she said, to determine which vaccine to use. Generally, she said, the analysis is effective; this year they missed the mark.

“In 17 of the last 19 years they anticipated correctly,” she said. “This year, they weren’t correct, and the vaccine simply is not attending to the strains we are experiencing.”

Bradley said other respiratory illnesses — such as bacterial pneumonia — have also been on the rise as a result of the higher level of flu cases.

“When you have a higher level of flu, you also have a higher proportion of complications, such as bacterial pneumonia,” she said.

The staff at Integris Canadian Valley Regional Hospital has felt firsthand the effects of the surge in cases, said Christy Wilcox, director of nursing.

“The last three weeks, we’ve been operating at more than full capacity,” she said. “We’ve also had a significant increase in emergency room visits.”

The number of emergency visits increased in January to 2000, Wilcox said. In February, visits have topped 2,400 with three more days left in the month.
While the hospital is full this week, she said the facility is not holding patients, which was the case through the first three weeks of the month.

“We had the situation where we didn’t have enough beds in the hospital to handle everyone, so we were having to hold people for longer than normal periods in ER,” she said. “Obviously, that isn’t the optimal situation. It’s also then compounded by the fact that we have people who are in for surgeries and other scheduled procedures. We need to make sure we have beds for them as well.”

Complicating the problem, Wilcox said, is the fact that overcrowding is so wide-spread.

“We are not the only hospital having this problem. I understand every other hospital in the state is having the same situation,” she said. “It also impacts emergency services because it gets to the point that they have to bring patients somewhere. That’s another way we are getting overloaded.”

Another factor is that hospital staffs have been hit with the same illnesses infecting their patients.

“We’ve had a greater number of employees out, which really compounds the problem,” Wilcox said. “We’ve got people trying to cover for others and getting worn out and sick as well.”

Wilcox said while flu and pneumonia have hit patients hard, stomach flu has also been a culprit.

“We’ve had a vast array of illness — they’re either GI (gastrointestinal) or respiratory — and they just seem to keep coming,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many families I’ve heard of where the entire family is down with one thing or another.”

Complicating matters, Bennett-Webb said, is that many people are not going to the doctor at the onset of symptoms, relying on their flu shot to protect them. While there are prescriptions that could help if started right away, time is of the essence for patients to get any benefit from them.

“We’ve heard about a lot of people getting relief with Tamiflu, but they have to start it quickly — within about 48 hours. It also can possibly help prevent flu for other members of an infected person’s family,” she said. “The down side is if they don’t get it going right away, they’re pretty much out of luck and just have to let it run its course.”

Bennett-Webb said because flu is not a reportable disease, the number of cases could be much higher. The health department has a surveillance network of 35 health-care providers, laboratories and other emergency services statewide that choose to report cases of flu to the agency, she said. The department then compiles those numbers to determine a level of infection statewide, from no activity to epidemic.

County officials cannot break out levels by county, and Nicole Michael, public information officer for the Canadian County Health Department, said the county does not keep track of those numbers. Statewide, the number of flu cases reported during the week of Jan. 20 was 221; that figure increased to 741 during the week of Feb. 10, “and the numbers are still on the rise,” Bradley said.

Shannon Rigsby, Mustang School District spokeswoman, said the numbers at area schools tell the local story. Through the month of February, she said absences ran between 7 to 11 percent at the district’s six elementary schools. Rigsby said those percentages generally range from 3 to 5 percent.

“We do experience an increase in illness-related absences this time of year,” she said. “However, this has been as bad as it has ever been in seven or eight years.”
Schools have been impacted, Rigsby said, not just by student illnesses, but the loss of staff, from teachers to bus drivers.

“Just last Friday, we had 11 bus drivers out,” she said. “We’ve had situations where some of our principals have had to step into classrooms because we didn’t have substitutes. We’re making the best we can of a bad situation.”

Wilcox said prevention is a key thing to remember.

“Wash your hands — that’s the best thing I can say,” Wilcox said. “If you get it, you need lots of vitamins, lots of fluids and lots of rest. Stay in bed and try not to go out into public. Also, saline nasal spray and a moist humidifier can really help.”

Another important thing is to keep in mind that flu symptoms can escalate quickly, Bradley said.

“We’ve seen a lot of cases of both flu and pneumonia coming on very quickly,” she said. “This can be a very serious disease. It should not be taken lightly. People need to avoid spreading the illness, and that means staying home, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do.”

Rigsby agreed, saying MSD officials ask parents to do two “very important” things.
“Parents need to keep instilling in their children the importance of washing their hands,” she said. “If a child is sick, keep them home.”

While she and her staff are thankful for the lull in cases this week, Wilcox said she doesn’t believe it will last.

“There’s still so much of it out there — and then you factor in the changing weather and the high winds,” she said. “I think we’re in for another surge of it.”


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