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Flu keeping Allegheny County hospitals busy

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 4:47 a.m.
Jefferson Regional Medical Center has face masks available at three entrances and encourages visitors to wear them as a precaution while visiting patients. Christopher Dooley, MD; Medical Director Emergency Services, right,  demonstrates the proper technique for wearing a face mask to Janet O'Brien, Specialist; Volunteer Services. 
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Jefferson Regional Medical Center has face masks available at three entrances and encourages visitors to wear them as a precaution while visiting patients. Christopher Dooley, MD; Medical Director Emergency Services, right, demonstrates the proper technique for wearing a face mask to Janet O'Brien, Specialist; Volunteer Services. Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News

This year's flu outbreak has been deemed “widespread” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Allegheny County leads the state with 966 confirmed cases.

Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole said 5 percent of patients at emergency rooms in the past week were treated for influenza-like illness, a 1 percent decrease from the previous week but up from the normal 2-3 percent this time of year.

“The season started earlier this year, in late November or early December,” Cole said. “Because it started earlier, we may see an earlier peak.”

Kane Regional Center in McKeesport has “no visitors” signs on its doors and residents are quarantined to reduce the risk of influenza. Calls seeking comment were were not returned by presstime.

Dr. Richard F. Collins, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, said they have had 124 cases since November — 65 in January.

“Last year the number of cases was minimal,” he said.

Of those cases, about 15 patients have been admitted to the facility in the past two weeks, Collins said.

Dr. Christopher Dooley, medical director of emergency services at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, said most emergency department patients have something viral — either influenza or the norovirus.

“Most people we are seeing have respiratory problems, coughs, aches and pains,” Dooley said. “We are seeing a lot of that. But we are seeing more with a gastrointestinal virus.”

To slow the spread of influenza, Jefferson Regional has masks available to visitors and patients to the emergency department. Masks also are available in the lobby for visitors throughout the hospital and in the waiting area for those having lab tests.

“This has been well-received in the emergency department,” Dooley said. “When I go in to see a patient, it's routine that they and their family members have a mask on.”

Describing the initiative as a “work in progress,” Dooley said a percentage of flu cases could be prevented by using the masks. The project started on Friday and since then a couple hundred masks have been distributed.

A spokesperson for UPMC McKeesport said they also have seen an increase in the number of influenza patients. Of the 28 confirmed cases, 21 have been admitted to the facility.

Eighty-one percent of staff at UPMC McKeesport received a flu shot, “higher than any other UPMC facility,” the spokesperson said.

Health officials say the best way to reduce your risk of getting the flu is to wash your hands frequently. They also recommend anyone 6 months and older receive the influenza vaccine.

“There is still an ample supply,” Cole said of vaccines for Allegheny County residents.

The vaccines are available through health care professionals, pharmacies and urgent care centers.

“It is not too late to get a vaccine,” he stressed. “If you get it now, it will get you through the rest of the season, which could go until February or March or beyond.”

Vaccines are available at Jefferson Regional and Dooley said, “We are absolutely trying to get the vaccine out to as many people as possible.”

Through the Mon River Fleet Influenza project, some 6,200 vaccines have been administered at no cost to recipients. To meet an ongoing demand, two emergency medical service groups have requested additional vaccines.

Since the flu season began in October, the state Department of Health reports more than 11,000 confirmed cases. Of the 22 flu-related deaths, 18 have been since Jan. 1.

White Oak EMS will administer shots on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at its Community Center at the intersection of State Street and Lincoln Way. In response to calls about the flu vaccine, Eastern Area received 20 vaccines to meet those needs.

Cole stressed the vaccine is not immediate protection — it takes two weeks for the immunity to work.

“But it is the first line of defense. The sooner you get one the better, but it's not too late,” he said.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. Health officials say anyone with those symptoms should stay home and avoid contact with others.

Those at greater risk of serious flu-related complications are young children, older people, those who are pregnant, and those with long-term medical conditions like asthma and heart disease.

If you have the flu, non-medication treatment includes getting plenty of rest; drinking clear fluids like water, broth, sports drinks or electrolyte beverages to prevent dehydration; placing a cool, damp cloth on your forehead, arms and legs to reduce discomfort associated with a fever; putting a humidifier in the room to ease breathing; gargling with salt water to soothe a sore throat; and covering up with a blanket to calm chills.

Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media.

She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or

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