In a national conference call Wednesday morning Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said that the state officially became an area of “widespread” flu activity on Jan. 3, a trend happening nationally as well.
The virus that she said was the most common strain of the flu this year is H3N2 and what she called an influenza outbreak has created an overflow in hospitals around the state, specifically Rhode Island Hospital, Miriam hospital, and as Care New England spokesman James Beardsworth told the Beacon last week, Kent Hospital as well.
“Wait times are longer in certain hospitals,” Alexander-Scott said. “Emergency departments have seen extremely high volumes since the new year as well.”
Jason Umbenhauser, chief of emergency medical services for the Warwick Fire Department said Wednesday that the department is responding to eight to ten calls for flu-like symptoms daily. He said Warwick Rescue transport them to the hospital.
Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the Department of Health, said that there have been 203 hospitalizations so far this season, which is up from the 113 reported last Tuesday.
“Miriam and Rhode Island Hospital are the two we’ve been communicating with most closely because they’ve requested some assistance from us,” he said. “But generally speaking hospitals are seeing a lot of traffic. There’s lots of virus circulating.”
There have also been two deaths in the state because of the flu. Alexander-Scott added in the conference call that there have also been 20 pediatric deaths across the country so far.
In her opinion, this influx in hospitalizations is caused by more people experiencing flu symptoms both nationally and in the state as a cause of a lack of vaccinations. The two other state officials on the conference call, Larry Wolk, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, and Karen Smith, state public health officer in California, agreed on that point.
Alexander-Scott expressed that the best way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated, which it’s not too late to do because the flu season continues into March, but additional actions like washing hands and practicing good cough hygiene help as well.
“The flu vaccine is the best defense we have against the flu,” she said.
In terms of what her department and the state can do to avoid an overflow of hospitals, she talked about working with EMS services and the hospitals themselves to make sure everyone gets the care they need.
Wendelken added that if a hospital can’t except more EMS transports, they go on something called diversion. The DOH will communicate and coordinate with EMS teams to send them to hospitals that aren’t on diversion, as long as the patient’s situation allows for a longer transport.
In addition to the work the DOH is doing to mitigate hospital overflow, Alexander-Scott also said that patients can help by going to their primary care physicians or even a walk-in clinic before choosing to go to a hospital. Flu symptoms can be diagnosed and treated at these places the same as they would be at the hospitals, she said, as long as the patient doesn’t need acute care.
Wolk, during the press conference, talked about that treatment that flu patients can get, which includes influenza antiviral medications including Tamiflu and Relenza. Alexander-Scott pointed out that there isn’t any type of shortage of antivirals in Rhode Island currently, so they are available for flu patients.
Jim Blumenstock, Chief of Health Security for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials that set up the conference call, said this about the flu outbreak and flu prevention.
“The flu is a perennial threat and in some years it threatens our health safety more than others. Vaccination, proper hand washing, cough hygiene, and monitoring personal health are the best protection strategy for families. And seeking the appropriate level of medical attention when symptoms are there,” Blumenstock said.