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Widespread flu hits the region


During an eight-hour stretch last week, 80 patients checked into Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center’s emergency room.

“Over the last week we’ve just been swamped,” said attending physician Jeffrey Coles.

Similarly, Mary Washington Healthcare has experienced a 15 percent increase in emergency room patients during the past three weeks.

That’s 427 patients per day recently, compared to an average of 365 per day in December, according to Dr. Adam Sims, senior vice president of Fredericksburg emergency medical alliance at Mary Washington Healthcare.

Both emergency room physicians attribute the increase to influenza-like illnesses.

The rise in patients here is similar to recent spikes in flu cases throughout Virginia and the nation.

Virginia has had four weeks of what’s called widespread influenza so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Widespread influenza is defined as outbreaks or increases in influenza-like cases in at least half of the regions of a state.

Last year’s flu season involved only three weeks of widespread activity in Virginia. This season’s fourth week of widespread influenza ended Dec. 29, and emergency rooms in the Fredericksburg area continue to report a high incidence of influenza-like illnesses.

Sims said emergency room staffs always expect to keep busy with flu patients in the winter. Given the number of cases so far, the hospital intends to be ready for even more patients this winter.

“We continue to prepare for an increase in volume of patients during these winter months,” Sims said. “We anticipate adding an additional physician per shift to cover these increases.”

Coles, of Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, agreed this flu season is overwhelming emergency rooms earlier than in average years.

Peak influenza season in Virginia is typically between January and March.

“It’s questionable how effective flu shots were this year,” Coles said. “The shot is made before the specific strains of the virus in the season are clear.”

This year’s vaccine seems to be a good match for most of the flu strains that are circulating, according to a CDC press release. And the vaccine remains the best way to protect against the flu, the CDC says. But it’s still possible for vaccinated people to get sick with the flu—by picking up a strain that’s not included in the vaccine, or because protection offered by the shot can vary based on age and other factors.

Coles recommended that people with the flu stay away from hospitals since they can spread the virus to other patients—for whom the flu can develop into a life-threatening illness.

Also, since influenza is a virus, patients should be aware that the care offered is for symptoms. The flu isn’t a bacterial infection, so it can’t be treated with antibiotics.

“They may feel like they’re dying,” Coles said of people with the flu. “But there’s nothing magic we can do for them.”

Brooke Rossheim, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District, said the number of flu patients has been growing steadily over the past few weeks and is still rising.

“We know it’s out there and on the increase,” Rossheim said.

He said it is hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the increase in influenza activity.

“The only thing that’s predictable about influenza is that it’s unpredictable,” he said.

It’s not too late to fend off the flu, Rossheim said. Below are his tips for staying healthy and limiting the spread of the virus during the current flu season:

Get vaccinated. “The best preventive measure is a flu shot,” Rossheim said.

Flu shots are widely available in the area, at pharmacies, stores and doctors’ offices, and there’s still plenty of time left in flu season for the vaccine to provide protection.

“It’s never too late, and the supply of the vaccine is good,” Rossheim said.

Wash your hands often. Hand hygiene is imperative if you want to stay well.

Cover your cough. Cough hygiene is equally important and protects others from your own germs. Rossheim said to cough into a sleeve or tissue but never into the air. Influenza can live on surfaces for a couple of hours after someone coughs or otherwise spreads the virus.

Stay home if you’re sick. Rossheim advised staying home from work or other activities if you have influenza or another virus. Staying home is an easy way to control the spread of the virus.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976