Epidemic level of flu cases sending ERs past capacity

EVERETT — Influenza has reached epidemic levels in Snohomish County, killing a sixth person and jamming clinics and hospital emergency rooms with sickened patients sometimes waiting hours to be examined.

The county’s sixth flu death was a man in his early 70s from Everett with existing health problems that made him more vulnerable, according to the Snohomish Health District.

On Wednesday, 43 people were hospitalized for influenza symptoms at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, the county’s largest hospital. A total of 69 people have been hospitalized there since Jan. 1, said hospital spokeswoman Lisa Daly.

This year might see the greatest number of people in Snohomish County hospitalized with flu problems since 2009, the first year hospitals began keeping records on influenza inpatients, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Hospitals up and down the I-5 corridor are jammed with patients with respiratory illnesses including flu, he said.

Emergency rooms are being overwhelmed, backing up the emergency response system, Goldbaum said. “It means emergency responders are waiting in an emergency room and are not available to respond to other emergencies,” he said.

The Everett hospital emergency room has treated up to 332 patients a day, “which is very high for a 79-bed emergency room,” said Dr. C. Ryan Keay, the emergency room’s medical director.

Some patients here and at hospitals throughout the region say they have waited four to five hours to be diagnosed. The sickest patients are seen first, Keay said.

When overloaded, local emergency rooms, including Providence and Swedish Edmonds, occasionally have asked emergency responders to take less-sick patients elsewhere for about two hours to allow them to catch up, although they still accept incoming accident, heart attack and stroke patients. At Providence, that’s happened four times over the winter months, Keay said.

Goldbaum said people should think carefully about whether they need to go to an emergency room to be treated for flu symptoms. “We urge everyone, unless they have really severe symptoms, such as choking, they’re unable to breathe, they have very high fevers, or are feeling that it it truly a crisis, to call their own provider first,” he said.

Patients also can get help at walk-in and urgent care clinics, using nurse phone lines or the internet for online medical appointments.

Area clinics have been jammed with patients, too, with waits sometimes hitting two hours or more. “We’re seeing 750 to 800 patients a day at the walk-in clinics,” said Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, who tracks flu issues at The Everett Clinic.

A number of local schools are reporting high levels of absenteeism, Goldbaum said.

“What I worry about is flu is so easily spread and we know it can have severe effects on the oldest and the youngest,” Goldbaum said. “Unlike most other viruses, we have a vaccine for the flu.”

It’s not just students getting sick. Teachers also have been seeking subs at a higher rate than normal for this time of year. “It’s climbed all week,” said Debbie Joyce Jakala, an Edmonds School District spokeswoman.

Local pharmacies and medical clinics say they still have supplies of flu shots.

Flu symptoms include sudden fever, cough, sore throat, headache, body aches and fatigue.

If people are sick with flu symptoms, it’s important that they stay home to prevent its spread, Goldbaum said. Children and adults should be fever-free for 24 hours without the help of fever and pain relievers such as Tylenol before resuming daily activities.

Influenza can be far more troublesome for people with chronic health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes.

It also can be dangerous for children younger than 2 and adults 65 and older. A University of Washington researcher found that both age groups were hospitalized from influenza complications at about the same rates.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

The flu

More information on the flu is available at the Snohomish Health District website: www.snohd.org/flu.

Flu symptoms

Fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, fatigue, headache, vomiting or diarrhea (more common in kids than adults).

When to seek medical care

Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; sudden dizziness; confusion; severe or persistent vomiting; flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough; trouble drinking fluids

Source: Snohomish Health District

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